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September 19, 2008

Lucking Out or Level Playing Field?

Ray Fisman
Lambert Family Professor of Social Enterprise
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I am an economist, so naturally I believe that a lot of behaviors can be explained by the incentives people face and the cost-benefit calculations that ensue.

But I like to think I’m not a narrow-minded economist. I can acknowledge that the foibles of human psychology also account for a lot of what we do. And sometimes the two interact in surprising and interesting ways.

In understanding who does — or does not — get ahead in the workplace, some (economic) discrimination surely plays a role – a subject not unfamiliar to many working women. But it also appears that some women may be leaving the work force as a pre-emptive strike; why stick around when all that hard work isn’t going to pay off?

Some years ago, I had a conversation on this topic with Maura O’Neill, who at the time was an MBA student in the Berkeley-Columbia program. Maura suggested that active discrimination accounts for only half of a vicious cycle. The other half, she said, is women simply choosing not to compete for leadership positions in order to avoid facing such dispiriting discrimination. This, of course, only reinforces the idea that women are unwilling to or incapable of fulfilling such roles, perpetuating the cycle.

And so began our very happy academic collaboration to study the difference in attitudes between men and women and return on effort in the workplace.

In the resulting study, which will be published next year in the Journal of Human Resources, we discovered that women are more likely to view success as a matter of luck or connections rather than hard work, a result consistent with Maura’s description of the discouraging prospects for promotion for many women. We used data from the World Values Survey, which allowed us to look globally at the relationship and find that this gender difference in viewpoint is remarkably persistent over time and across countries. Perhaps more concerning for those with leadership ambitions is that this “gender perceptions gap” is far wider for those in managerial positions.

But these findings represent something that concerns us all. As Maura wrote in a column on the study last year, “I worry that if women don't think that the workplace is a level playing field where effort generates promotions, they will not feel compelled to invest their best efforts. As a result, corporate America will lose out on a vast reservoir of talent.”

Well put, Maura. Now that we have a better sense of the problem, how about some suggested solutions?

Columbia Business School and the Bernstein Center for Leadership and Ethics are hosting a research symposium on “Universities, Careers and Women” on September 19.

Photo credit: Ricardo Motti