Gender, sports and economics

Apparently, the football season has kicked off again. For non-fans such as me, that means another 10 months or so of struggling to comprehend mysterious exchanges beginning, “Who’ve you got at the weekend?”, and puzzling at the black mood of die-hard supporters whose team has just snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Football’s return also tends to mean a fresh outbreak of sporting metaphors. Maybe it’s simply that I spend an unhealthy amount of time talking to economists and financial analysts but I sometimes wish there was some alternative to “moving the goalposts” or the ubiquitous “level playing field”. In private, women number-crunchers and policymakers confess to being baffled or infuriated by the tendency of their football fan colleagues to have enthusiastic but incomprehensible conversations about their team’s fortunes.

As for sporting metaphors, they can be great for getting a complicated point across, but the opposite of elucidation if you don’t get the reference. Bank of England governor Mervyn King, an avid football fan, used a lecture in 2005 to set out what he called the “Maradona theory of interest rates”, describing the process whereby investors and consumers respond to the way they expect interest rates to move, leaving nothing for the Bank to do. Fortunately, King explained he was referring to the Argentinian footballer’s masterly second goal in the crucial 1986 World Cup match against England; apparently Maradona cunningly bamboozled the England defence, because they expected him to weave about, but he ran in a straight line (get it?).

Perhaps what really bothers me about “straight bats” and “sprints for the finishing line” is the fear that they might reveal something deeper about work than the fact that gossiping about sport is the best way to show you’re a good bloke. Perhaps the reason all this jocular sports chat is so popular is that men have a tendency to see life as a contest; perhaps the reason it tends to irritate their female colleagues so much is that women don’t.

Economists Muriel Niederle and Lise Vesterlund tested the ability of men and women to do simple maths . They found absolutely no difference between their performance. Yet when offered the chance to compete against each other, and be paid according to whether they won, 73% of men chose performance-related pay, while only 35% of women did so. Part of the explanation, the economists found when they checked the participants’ performance against their expressions of self-confidence, was that women are more likely to underestimate their own ability. As a result, they sometimes shy away from direct competition.

Another paper, by Marco Daniele Paserman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, examined Grand Slam tennis, and found that women tended to play more conservatively as the tension rose and winning the point became more crucial.

The insight at the heart of the most exciting recent economics is that people — women included — respond to incentives. But perhaps it needn’t be all or nothing. Successful women are described as having taken on their male rivals and “beaten them at their own game”, or, if they’re very lucky, to have “rewritten the rules”. Perhaps one day

the game will be scrapped altogether. — The Guardian