While biological differences between the sexes might give men a physical advantage in many sports, it’s possible that they come at a mental cost. Men typically show a greater spike in the stress hormone cortisol when under pressure than women, and, given that high cortisol levels can interfere with mental processing, it’s feasible this could mean men’s performance is more adversely affected in high-stakes contexts than women’s.
A new analysis of elite tennis performance in the Journal of Economic Psychology is consistent with this account. Based on the outcome of thousands of games played across the four tennis Grand Slams in 2010, the researchers led by Danny Cohen-Zada at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, found that men were adversely affected by high pressure by about twice as much as women. Extrapolating to the world of work, Cohen-Zada and his colleagues said this casts doubt on the argument that the gender pay gap is due to women’s inability to compete under pressure, though they acknowledged there are caveats to this conclusion.
The researchers accessed data on scores and players for over 1000 men’s and women’s matches played at Wimbledon, The French Open, The Australian Open and the US Open in 2010. They focused on Grand Slams because they offer the same prize money to men and women competitors, which rules out differences in stakes as an explanation for any observed sex differences in performance under pressure.
The researchers used various statistical techniques to weight the amount of pressure in any given game (including assessing how important the game was for increasing the odds of winning the match) and they looked to see how this affected the server’s performance compared with how often the server typically wins a game (the server has a big advantage in tennis). The researchers also adjusted the numbers to account for the fact that women play best of three games at Grand Slams whereas man play best of five, meaning that early games are more consequential for women than men.
There was ample evidence of high pressure adversely affecting male players’ performance. With a given unit increase in pressure (one standard deviation in statistical terms), men’s likelihood of losing a game in which they were serving increased by 4.9 per cent. For women, the same increase in pressure was associated with an increased likelihood of losing their service game of just 2.8 per cent. This apparent sex difference in the effect of pressure held even after factoring out other influences such as fatigue and differences in ranking between competing players.
In another analysis, the researchers focused on the effect of high pressure when both players had so far won an equal number of games (to help rule out strategic issues such as one player deciding to give up when they were too far behind). The detrimental effects of pressure were little changed for men in this context, but for women there was now no evidence of choking at all.
“Our robust evidence that women can respond better than men to competitive pressure is compelling,” the researchers said. “Our results do not seem to support the claim that gender differences in wages in the labor market can be attributed to the fact that women respond more poorly to competitive pressure.”
Among the caveats to this conclusion are the fact that in normal work situations men and women may be competing against each other (for sales targets, for instance), whereas the current results are based on men and women competing separately. In fact, there is past research to suggest that women’s performance under pressure may particularly suffer in mixed-sex competition. Of course, it’s also not clear how far the current findings pertain specifically to elite tennis or whether they reveal something about men and women’s performance more generally.
Image: Serena Williams during the China Open on September 21, 2005 (Photo by Cancan Chu/Getty Images).