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Women Have the Advantage in the Face of Pressure

Women Have the Advantage in the Face of Pressure

March 20, 2017

Business & Management, Social Sciences & Humanities

Quartz — Competing in a Grand Slam tennis event is not for the faint of heart. A new study by BGU researchers has examined these high stakes matches to answer the question of who chokes more under pressure: men or women?

The study was co-authored by Dr. Mosi Rosenboim of BGU’s Department of Management and Dr. Danny Cohen-Zada, of the Department of Economics. They were joined by colleagues from NYU Shanghai and the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland.

danny cohen-zada

Dr. Danny Cohen-Zada

The researchers clarify that losing a game when outmatched is not the same as choking, which refers to losing one’s focus and composure in a high-pressure situation. To measure the likelihood of choking, they designed a “pressure index” to figure out which gender was more likely to lose specifically because the stakes were ratcheted up.

Specifically, they looked at game-level data on the first sets of four Grand Slam tournaments, and within each set, whether and to what extent men’s and women’s performance improved or deteriorated as the stakes rose. In total, the researchers looked at 4,127 women’s games and 4,153 men’s games.

The results: “If women choke, it is about half as much as the choking that exists among men,” the researchers say.


Dr. Mosi Rosenboim

To corroborate their findings, the researchers examined dozens of scenarios and factors to determine the way pressure affects the performance of players, such as when a score is tied at 4-4 (a player has to win six games, and they have to win by two).

In those matches, men were found to lose on their serve 7.2 percent more after the game reaches a tie than before. Among women, the probability of losing on their serve in a 4-4 tie was not affected.

“There is no change, no effect on women,” the researchers say. “They play exactly the same.”

As to why women seem to hold up better under pressure, the results fall in line with what we know about cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone.” When people are under stress, adrenaline and cortisol surge, affecting reasoning and cognition, and studies have shown that cortisol levels increase more rapidly in men than in women.

“Tennis players may have different preferences and characteristics that may not necessarily make them a representative subject,” the researchers say.

“Nonetheless, the fact that we have uncovered such robust evidence that women can respond better than men to competitive pressure calls for further investigation in other real-life settings.”

It’s an important question, for many reasons. Women represent almost half the workforce in many countries, and yet face a stubborn pay gap. They are also notably under-represented in high-profile, high-paying positions, such as Fortune 500 CEOs, and in fast-growing, well-compensated professions, including those in science, technology and engineering.

Read more on the Quartz website >>