Do women crack under pressure?

Slate says "women are chokers." We'd rebut that, but suddenly our throats seem to be closing up.

Published February 13, 2007 6:27PM (EST)

Why, this just makes me ... want ... to ... choke.

According to Slate, one of the reasons that there are fewer women than men in positions of power is that, according to the relevant article's title, "women are chokers."

The author, Steven E. Landsburg, bases his arguments on this study (PDF) by M. Daniele Paserman at Hebrew University, in which Paserman studied the performance of male and female tennis players during crucial moments in eight Grand Slam tournaments played in 2005 and 2006. He wanted to find out whether "men and women respond differently to competitive pressure in a real-world setting with large monetary rewards."

Paserman concluded that both men's and women's performance deteriorates in the final set, when pressure is at its highest -- but when he evaluated each point according to how important it was to the overall game, he found that "the propensity of women to commit unforced errors increases significantly with the importance of the point, while men's propensity to commit unforced errors is unaffected by point importance."

That's pretty interesting, and it definitely does make one wonder why women seem to play more defensively (and less well) than men when the stakes are the highest. It's the sort of stuff that's perfect fodder for an editorial, an opportunity that Landsburg seized.

But putting aside my genetic predisposition to avoid situations that might cause conflict, I've got to say that Landsburg's piece pissed me off. I'm annoyed not because I think Paserman's study isn't worthy of discussion; I'm annoyed because the way Landsburg's piece is framed makes it seem as if the tennis study -- and another study based on male/female performance in solving a maze -- could provide the explanation for women's underrepresentation in positions of power. It's only at the very end of the piece that he suggests that this might not be the case.

"It would be a bit of a stretch to conclude that what happens on the tennis court must happen in the boardroom or biology lab," he admits. "But it might be worth looking into."

Um, OK. Let's look into it. The first thing that springs to my mind is the same question that Paserman raised in his actual study: whether it makes any sense whatsoever to compare professional athletes with CEOs (who, to the best of my knowledge, do not often rely on their hand-eye reflexes to win battles in the boardroom).

More important, though, it makes me want to read Paserman's conclusions from his own work so that I can have an intelligent conversation on the subject instead of submitting to knee-jerk reactions (which are definitely tempting). So here it is, in Paserman's own words:

"To what extent then can we draw from this study more general lessons about gender differences in the labor market? An unforced error is by definition an error that cannot be attributed to any factor other than poor judgment by the player. Can we extrapolate from our findings that in general women's judgment becomes more clouded as the stakes become higher, and this may hinder their advancement to the upper echelons of management, science, and the professions? Clearly, the answer must be negative. The results are only relevant for the specific context, and it is questionable whether the conclusions can be even extended to athletes in other sports, let alone to managers, surgeons, or other professionals who must make quick and accurate decisions in high pressure situations.

"Nevertheless, there are at least two striking features in this study that still deserve attention. First, the women in our sample are among the very best in the world in their profession, and are without question extremely competitive. They are probably quite distant from the typical woman in experimental studies, [who] underperforms in competitive settings and shies away from competition. Therefore, it is doubly surprising that even these highly competitive women exhibit a decline in performance in high pressure situations. In many respects, this sample is more representative of the extreme right tail of the talent distribution that is of interest for understanding the large under-representation of women in top corporate jobs, prestigious professions and academia. Second, some experimental studies (e.g., Gneezy, Niederle, and Rustichini, 2003) found that women's tendency to underperform in competitive environments occurs only when they compete against men. By contrast, here we find that women's performance deteriorates as competitive pressure rises, even when the competition is clearly restricted to women alone. This may have implications for educational policies such as single-sex schooling, and deserves further investigation."

Unfortunately, Paserman doesn't specify what implications this study might have for things like single-sex schooling, and the study's conclusion feels unsatisfying. (You can't extrapolate this beyond tennis ... unless maybe you can.)

But even though I don't buy this "choke theory" as an explanation for women's underrepresentation in boardrooms, I'd be interested in further explanations as to why it happens on the tennis court.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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