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How will (wo)men respond to competition in COVID times?

Stefano Piasenti (HU Berlin and DIW Berlin) and Marica Valente (HU Berlin and DIW Berlin)



Currently, women hold only 5.4% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies (Catalyst, 2019). Research suggests that women may be more likely than men to both avoid and drop out from competition, and this could partly explain the gender gap (Buser & Yuan, 2019).  

Observed differences in competitive attitudes seem to be driven by both beliefs (i.e., confidence about own ability) and preferences (for risk or competition). Policy can play an important role in reducing gender gaps due to differences in willingness to compete, especially through feedback about women's actual abilities. Moreover, competitive environments are often characterized by unfairness, such as gender discrimination, which greatly hinders women’s climbing to the top and calls for an even stronger policy intervention. Importantly, policy making is especially needed when natural disasters impact individuals’ psychological traits and beliefs (see, e.g., Baccini & Leemann, 2012). This is the case for the current COVID-19 pandemic, which is having disruptive repercussions on the psychological resilience of employers and employees.

At this point, a natural question to ask is whether and how the COVID-19 crisis and the new life-work balance affect gender-specific behavior in willingness to compete. Behavioral and psychological research can provide us with some clues which may help policymakers to envisage policy responses to a possible drastic amplification of the gender gap in times of COVID-19.

A first channel through which COVID-19 can impact willingness to compete is isolation. For instance, isolation hinders the practice of highly competitive activities such as sports, which can boost hormonal levels and hence willingness to compete. This could be particularly true for men because high levels of endogenous testosterone seem to encourage behaviors intended to enhance one’s status over other people (Mazur & Booth, 1998). Further, isolation and the lack of peer contact may reduce the visibility of one’s work and, thus, possible motivational factors such as reputation and peer approval. This could negatively impact utility gains from social status and external recognition which, in turn, could deplete competitive attitudes. Based on research on teenage behavior, adolescent male appear to be more susceptible to peer influences that encourage risk-taking behaviors, which might as well impact competitive attitudes (McCoy et al., 2019).

A second channel is uncertainty. On the one had, for some categories of employees, the endangered and more uncertain economic situation may incentivize willingness to compete to make up for actual or potential future losses. On the other hand, the endangered and more uncertain economic situation may discourage them to compete because it is unclear whether their efforts will be worthwhile. This is likely especially true for women because they seem to be more risk averse than men.

Besides isolation and uncertainty, there are also some other factors such as anxiety and depression which could affect women more than men. Specifically, the “social competition hypothesis” by Price, suggests that depression could have a negative impact on aggressive behaviour towards rivals and, ultimately, on competition (Kupferberg et al. 2016). This could be especially true for females. Women make up almost 70% of the health-care workforce, exposing them to a greater risk of infection, and face high risks of job and income loss (Boniol et al., 2019), increased risks of violence, exploitation, or abuse (Fernandez-Kranz, 2020), which could in turn induce depressive states.

Therefore, even if the impact of COVID-19 on competitive attitude does not seem to have a clear gender-specific direction, understanding how men and women react to competition seems an increasingly important question to answer, and policy actions may be needed now more than before.


Baccini, Leonardo, & Leemann, Lucas. 2012. Information and voting-how voters update beliefs after natural disasters. In: EPSA 2013 Annual General Conference Paper, vol. 435.

Boniol, Mathieu, McIsaac, Michelle, Xu, Lihui, Wuliji, Tana, Diallo, Khassoum, & Campbell, Jim. 2019. Gender equity in the health workforce: analysis of 104 countries. Tech. rept. World Health Organization.

Buser, Thomas, & Yuan, Huaiping. 2019. Do women give up competing more easily? Evidence from the lab and the Dutch math olympiad. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, forthcoming.

Catalyst. 2019. Women CEOs of the S&P 500.

Fernandez-Kranz, D.and Nollenberger, N. 2020. Understanding the rise of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence from Spain. 

Kupferberg, Aleksandra, et al. 2016. Testing the social competition hypothesis of depression using a simple economic game. BJPsych Open, 2(2), 163-169.

Mazur, Allan, & Booth, Alan. 1998. “Testosterone and dominance in men. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 21(3), 353-363.


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