Women Are Calmer under Pressure: New Research
New research by Alex Krumer of the University of St. Gallen, as reported in the Harvard Business Review, finds that women respond better to pressure in competitive sports than men do. Krumer and his colleagues analyzed more than 8,200 games from high-stakes Grand Slam tennis matches. They chose to include only the first matches of Grand Slams to control for the fatigue factor. They also chose Grand Slam tennis matches because performance was easy to measure, the monetary incentives and ranking points were the largest out of all the tournaments, and men and women received the same prize money. Krumer and his colleagues found that the men’s performance in unbroken serves deteriorated more than the women’s when the game was at a critical juncture, such as a 4-4 tie. Krumer said, “Among women, we saw barely any difference between pre- and post-tie performance.”
While the researchers acknowledge that applying this information to the labor market is difficult, they also speculate that biological differences between men and women identified by other researchers are consistent with their results. These are just two examples:
- The literature on cortisol, the stress hormone, shows that levels of it increase more rapidly in men than in women, which can hurt performance.
- Testosterone, a proven performance enhancer, increases after a victory and decreases after a defeat in men but not in women. Spikes in testosterone can lead to overconfidence and higher risk taking.
In previous articles, I reported on studies that show similarities and differences in factors affecting decision making between women and men. The differences in risk-taking behavior show that overconfidence is a major obstacle in making smart decisions.
The tennis researchers note that while they cannot demonstrate a direct relationship between performance in Grand Slam tennis matches and competence in the business world, other research shows significant differences, probably at least partially biologically based, in how women and men handle pressure. The researchers suggest that we consider the variety of roles in which we want leaders who can stay calm under pressure, such as CEOs and political leaders with control of nuclear weapons. Krumer suggests that “if you’re talking about mental toughness, maybe in certain circumstances it’s women who have the edge,” yet we have a dearth of women in CEO (4 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives) and political leadership roles. Clearly, that needs to change.
What steps are you taking to make a difference?
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