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women and saying “no”

12 April 2013

oprahno In another post earlier this week, I linked to a paper in the most recent issue of PS: Political Science and Politics: “Women Don’t Ask? Women Don’t Say No? Bargaining and Service in the Political Science Profession” (earlier ungated version), written by Sara McLaughlin Mitchell and Vicki L. Hesli. Data for the paper comes from survey responses of 1399 faculty members of US political science departments. To answer the second question — whether women say “no” — the authors found that women were asked to provide more service* and that they agreed to serve more frequently than men. At the same time, they found  that women were less likely to be asked by their colleagues to serve as department chair, to chair committees, or to lead academic programs. (So they’re asked to provide more service, but not the kind with higher esteem.)

Then, today I attended a talk** given by Lise Vesterlund, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Economics at the University of Pittsburgh. The talk was on research she’s done with Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, M.J. Tocci, Laurie Weingart, and Amanda Weirup: “Breaking the glass ceiling with “no”: Gender differences in doing favors.” The research was presented earlier this year at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association, and that presentation was written up on the Wall Street Journal’s blog (gated) in January. Here’s an excerpt of the WSJ writeup:

In one study, 47 business-school students were asked to recall agreeing to a favor on the job at a time when they preferred to say no. The female participants did the favor, even though they were five times more likely than males to report having felt worn out. Perhaps they obliged because they were also twice as likely to have been worried about the consequences of saying no.

In a second study, this one involving altruistic behavior in small groups, female undergraduates were 50% more likely to comply with an implicit request for a favor than were male students. The willingness of women to do favors in the workplace may lead them to become overburdened with low-skill tasks, the researchers said.

At the end of Vesterlund’s talk, I asked a question about why women would agree to a favor even though they were more likely than men to be worn out or worried — I asked, “Shouldn’t women be more worried? Isn’t it different when a woman says no than when a man says no? Especially in a context where women have historically been the ones doing the less esteemed service, when a woman says no, won’t she suffer greater consequences than the man who was never asked?” I might have said something about the people asking her thinking she was an “uppity” woman for saying no.

Here are a few interesting takeaways from Vesterlund’s presentation (not already covered by the WSJ):

  1. The difference between men and women in engaging in competition: Using behavioral economics experiments involving both male and female participants, Vesterlund and colleagues found that when given the option to participate in a tournament (and earn higher winnings) or being paid a piece rate (and earn less), men were more than twice as likely to select into the tournament than women — even when controlling for risk aversion.
  2. The loss to society: Highly talented women not entering in the competition makes society lose out on their underperformance. As a society, we are missing out on the differential between what women actually earn and what they could have potentially earned, if they were willing to compete.
  3. The “say no” club: The origin of the research came from Vesterlund and her colleagues participating in what they called a “say no” club*** (started after a conversation about being overcommitted at work). The club would meet once a month and each person would share what they said yes to, and what they said no to. Members knew that if they said yes to something, they would have to tell the club what they would say no to in return. Apparently, they have started “say no” clubs in different parts of the country.

Vesterlund’s talk was about more than these two studies. She also gave an overview of the research on vertical gender segregation. There were a few papers she mentioned during her talk that might be of interest. I’ve copied them below with their abstracts and links.

Choosing to compete: How different are girls and boys? by Alison L. Booth and Patrick Nolen
Using a controlled experiment, we examine the role of nurture in explaining the stylized fact that women shy away from competition. We have two distinct research questions. First, does the gender composition of the group to which a student is randomly assigned affect competitive choices? Second, does the gender mix of the school a student attends affect competitive choices? Our subjects (students just under 15 years of age) attend publicly funded single-sex and coeducational schools. We find robust differences between the competitive choices of girls from single-sex and coed schools. Moreover, girls from single-sex schools behave more like boys even when randomly assigned to mixed-sex experimental groups. This suggests that it is untrue that the average female avoids competitive behavior more than the average male. It also suggests that observed gender differences might reflect social learning rather than inherent gender traits.

Gender Differences in Competition: Evidence From a Matrilineal and a Patriarchal Society by Uri Gneezy, Kenneth L. Leonard, and John A. List
We use a controlled experiment to explore whether there are gender differences in selecting into competitive environments across two distinct societies: the Maasai in Tanzania and the Khasi in India. One unique aspect of these societies is that the Maasai represent a textbook example of a patriarchal society, whereas the Khasi are matrilineal. Similar to the extant evidence drawn from experiments executed in Western cultures, Maasai men opt to compete at roughly twice the rate as Maasai women. Interestingly, this result is reversed among the Khasi, where women choose the competitive environment more often than Khasi men, and even choose to compete weakly more often than Maasai men. These results provide insights into the underpinnings of the factors hypothesized to be determinants of the observed gender differences in selecting into competitive environments.

Gender and Competition by Muriel Niederle and Lise Vesterlund
Laboratory studies have documented that women often respond less favorably to competition than men. Conditional on performance, men are often more eager to compete, and the performance of men tends to respond more positively to an increase in competition. This means that few women enter and win competitions. We review studies that examine the robustness of these differences as well the factors that may give rise to them. Both laboratory and field studies largely confirm these initial findings, showing that gender differences in competitiveness tend to result from differences in overconfidence and in attitudes toward competition. Gender differences in risk aversion, however, seem to play a smaller and less robust role. We conclude by asking what could and should be done to encourage qualified males and females to compete.

Unfortunately, the new studies Vesterlund presented today are not yet available as papers to read, but I hope they will be soon (and will post to haba na haba once they are online).


*Service in an academic setting typically refers to those responsibilities outside of research and teaching (though sometimes overlapping), including but not limited to: participation on departmental committees (i.e., curriculum committees or hiring committees), contributing to university initiatives (i.e., increasing global experience opportunities or participating in the university’s honor code review panels), engaging with professional associations, and generally using your skills and expertise to serve the university (and sometimes even the larger community). Service is usually one part of how faculty are evaluated for tenure and promotion (alongside teaching and research).

**The talk was sponsored by TAMU’s Economics Department and NSF ADVANCE Center.

***These are not at all related to the “Just Say No” campaigns that my generation grew up on:

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Autumn permalink
    12 April 2013 10:52 pm

    I have begun to dread when someone seeks me out because I’m afraid they’ll ask for a favor/service and I won’t have the ability to say no. Or I won’t empower myself to say no. I’m in grad school, and I know my work has suffered somewhat already because of service, but word has gotten around that I’m responsible and take service seriously. But I think it’s slowing my progress. I want to join a Say No Club!!!

    • 13 April 2013 3:13 pm

      One tactic that has worked for me is making appointments for my writing/research. If I make a Sunday meeting with myself and work out my calendar (see: ), I try to guard the time I need to get the things done that are most important (if not always the most urgent). When someone asks me to do something, I look at the calendar and see if I have enough time, and if I don’t, I tell them when I will next have time and ask if it will work for them — and this is only for the things I /want/ to do. Anything I don’t want to do, I’ve learned to just say no to. << That has taken a lot of courage and practice.

  2. 13 April 2013 3:51 am

    Such an interesting and thought-provoking post Kim! Thank you.

    Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device


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