Women are more creative and collaborative in groups. However, if you throw a competitive component to the picture, they falter and fall apart, which is exactly the opposite of men. Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis have found the strengths and weaknesses of men and women working in groups, and published their study in the journal Organization Science.

“Intergroup competition is a double-edged sword that ultimately provides an advantage to groups and units composed predominantly or exclusively of men, while hurting the creativity of groups composed of women,” said Dr. Markus Baer, the study’s lead author and associate professor of organizational behavior at Olin Business School. “Women contributed less and less to the team’s creative output when the competition between teams became cutthroat, and this fall-off was most pronounced in teams composed entirely of women.” 

Researchers suggest the reason men become more creative is because there’s an innate competitive surge to succeed against his enemies, which forces them to think outside of the box. According to basic evolutionary theory, the intra-sexual competition will create aggressive competitiveness, unlike women, who tend to waver and show a decrease in productivity. Employers should take note.

“If teams work side by side, women tend to perform better and even outperform men — they’re more creative, Baer said. “As soon as you add the element of competition though, the picture changes. Men under those circumstances gel together. They become more interdependent and more collaborative, and women just do the opposite.” 

Men are the only beneficiaries of head-to-head competition, which is a way for managers to manipulate team situations, while setting up non-competitive groups of women to flourish in their own way. Baer emphasizes that although his team’s results show a decrease in effective team work for women in competition, it does not mean that women are inherently bad at functioning in competition. Instead, he offers the reason lies deep within the bowels of gender stereotypes, which still arise as an ancient yet omnipresent beast within the business world.  

“So, what is true for non-competitive circumstances, flips when it gets competitive,” Baer said.  “It’s not that women stink at competing, it’s that the way society views women and the way we view competition, gender specific, has an impact and that impact is observable in the lab as well as in the field,” Baer said. “It changes behaviors and outcomes.”  

Gender roles present itself as a large part of the division of labor in society, and although we have laws that prohibit segregation among the genders, there is still a glass ceiling for women who only make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, according to the nonprofit organization, Catalyst: Earnings and Income of U.S. Women and Men. The wage gap has closed over the years, but there are still dynamics in how men and women function in the workplace and a sense of submission to men when competition rises into play.

“Given that women represent a growing portion of the workforce, using competition as a means to enhance the creativity of groups, regardless of how they are composed, implies that the creative potential available to businesses is seldom fully realized,” the study contends.

Source: Vadera AK, Leenders RT, and Oldham GR.  Intergroup Competition as a Double-Edged Sword: How Sex Composition Regulates the Effects of Competition on Group Creativity. Organization Science. 2014.