Gender equality in the workplace is a hot topic today. While many in the business world point to “choking under pressure” as a reason more women are not holding CEO portfolios, a new Israeli-led study assessing how both men and women respond to competitive pressure in comparable situations shows that, in fact, men are more affected than women by pressure.

The study, led by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), looked at high-level tennis competitions. But the goal was to highlight reasons for the unequal male-female ratio in the workforce.

“The purpose of this study is to shed additional light on how men and women respond to competitive pressure and use its conclusions to better understand the labor market,” said Prof. Danny Cohen-Zada of BGU’s department of economics. “For example, our findings do not support the existing hypothesis that men earn more than women in similar jobs because they respond better than women to pressure.”

The researchers note that the link between pressure and performance has received much academic attention over the years.

According to the researchers, stress influenced by an onset of heightened cortisol levels is one of the possible culprits, and cite other researchers’ sports-related studies that have already shown that high amounts of cortisol correlate with poor second serves in tennis and worse golf performance.

“This literature indicates that in response to achievement challenges, cortisol levels increase more rapidly among men than among women, and that high levels can harm the mind’s critical abilities,” says paper co-author Offer Moshe Shapir of the Center for Business Education and Research at NYU Shanghai.

Indeed, Israeli researchers have already examined how to train your brain to ignore anxiety in the workplace and how high levels of stress in the workplace affect the development of type 2 diabetes.

This latest study, titled “Choking Under Pressure and Gender”, examined high-level athletic competitions, describing them as “a unique setting in which two professionals compete in a real-life contest with high monetary rewards,” to evaluate how both men and women respond to competitive pressure in comparable situations.

“Our research showed that men consistently choke under competitive pressure, but with regard to women the results are mixed,” said Mosi Rosenboim of BGU’s department of management. “However, even if women show a drop in performance in the more crucial stages of the match, it is still about 50 percent less than that of men.”

Grand Slam Tennis vs. the workplace

The researchers in this study chose to look at whether there are gender differences in responding to competitive pressure.

“For this purpose, we use game-level tennis data on all the first sets of all four Grand Slam tournaments in 2010 and examine, within each tennis match, whether and how much each gender deteriorates or improves at crucial stages of the match,” said Cohen-Zada. “The analysis is based on 4,127 women’s and 4,153 men’s tennis games.”

The study’s authors wrote in their paper that they chose to look at tennis since it is obvious who the clear winner is of each point, game, set and match. That provided them with “high quality information about the importance of stakes and the performance of the players at every juncture of the match.”

Tennis also gave the researchers a platform to analyze how men and women respond to real-world competitive environments.

The study does, however, explain that caution should be exercised in applying its findings directly to the labor market.

“For one thing, while we analyzed how female tennis players respond to pressure in a contest that is homogeneous with regard to gender, in the labor market women are required to respond to competitive pressure in a different setting where, for example, they compete with men,” says paper co-author Alex Krumer of the Swiss Institute for Empirical Economic Research at the University of St. Gallen.

“In addition, tennis players may have different preferences and characteristics that may not necessarily make them a representative subject. 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 tournament settings.”