Stanford University: Stanford economist receives Oskar Morgenstern Medal

In the past, the field of economics was dominated by and focused on men, but economist Muriel Niederle is working to change this. Niederle’s research explores experimental economics and gender differences in competitive behavior in the labor market.

“While there have been enormous strides in the last decades, gender differences in education and labor market outcomes are still enormous,” said Niederle, the Pauline K. Levin-Robert L. Levin and Pauline C. Levin-Abraham Levin Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

One of her most cited research papers, “Do women shy away from competition? Do men compete too much?” investigated the competitive tendencies of men and women of similar abilities. The paper was co-authored with Lise Vesterlund and published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

In the study, participants were asked to add numbers under noncompetitive and competitive tournament scenarios. They found no differences between women and men in performance, but men were more likely to select the tournament format when given the option to choose between a noncompetitive and tournament scenario for their next task. A striking 73 percent of the men selected the tournament, while only 35 percent of the women made this choice.

“The tournament-entry gap is driven by men being more overconfident and by gender differences in preferences for performing in a competition,” the authors wrote in the Quarterly Journal of Economics paper. “The result is that women shy away from competition and men embrace it.”

Niederle’s groundbreaking work received international attention, earning her numerous honors. Most recently, she received the 2021 Oskar Morgenstern Medal for outstanding research achievements in the field of economics.

Niederle is the fifth recipient of the Oskar Morgenstern Medal and is the first woman to receive this honor. She received the medal at an award ceremony held in Vienna, Austria on October 7.

The medal is named after Oskar Morgenstern, the co-founder of game theory who was a professor at the University of Vienna until 1938. The award was established in 2013 to honor the Austrian economist and commemorate the 250 anniversary of the University of Vienna’s faculty of economics. The medal is endowed with 10,000 euros ($11,625.50) and is awarded every two years by the faculty.

“I am especially proud to win this award,” Niederle said. In her acceptance speech at the livestreamed medal ceremony in Vienna, Niederle shared how her interest in gender differences in competitive behavior began when she was a student in high school.

“I wanted to understand why so few girls chose the math track. My job market paper, which gave me a job at Stanford in 2002, introduced gender differences in competitiveness.”

Since then, Niederle’s research has shown how differences in competitiveness can account for gender differences in education choices and labor market outcomes.

For example, in a paper published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2014, Niederle and her co-authors measured the competitiveness of roughly 400 ninth-graders from schools in Amsterdam using the “Niederle-Vesterlund” design.

The girls and boys surveyed had comparable grade point averages and were equally good in math, though girls were less likely to choose the “most prestigious” track in the Netherlands, the math track for their remaining three years of high school. Girls were less likely to enter the tournament than boys, replicating previous findings.

The researchers found students who entered the tournament were more likely to select the math track in high school. Furthermore, gender differences in competitiveness accounted for about 20 percent of the gender gap in track choices in high school.

Niederle’s current work investigates the policy implications of her research findings, and her most recent paper explores the trickle-down effects of affirmative action. She also continues to teach at Stanford in the fields of experimental and behavioral economics and gender.

“I am very grateful to my coauthors, many of whom are former Stanford students.” Niederle said. “Stanford has always been very supportive, even when gender was still an exotic topic, and I am proud that this year we offer a graduate class on gender economics.”