Female Tennis Pros Can Take the Pressure, Men Can't, Science Says

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U.S. player Serena Williams celebrates winning the first set against Germany's Angelique Kerber during the women's singles final on Day 13 of 2016 Wimbledon Championships, London, July 9, 2016.
She can take the pressure: Serena Williams, U.S. player, celebrates winning the first set against Germany's Angelique Kerber during the women's singles final on Day 13 of 2016 Wimbledon Championships.Credit: Justin Tallis, AFP

Women weather competitive pressure better than men. Much better, at least in the case of pros on the tennis court, according to a study done at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel.

Whether this finding applies more broadly to other sports and to life in general remains to be seen. But as one of the professors points out, it destroys the excuse that men earn more than women because they stand strong under pressure while, facing the same stressor, females crumple and weep on their manly shoulders. "Man up" may take on a whole new meaning.

Based on men's and women's Grand Slam Tennis tournament matches, the BGU team found that men consistently choke under competitive pressure, but women deliver mixed results. The results are reported in their paper Choking Under Pressure and Gender.

The Grand Slam was chosen for the study because it is a rigid setting in which two professionals compete and which confers high monetary rewards, they explain. Technically, the Ben Gurioners took data on games on all the first sets of all four Grand Slam tournaments in 2010. They then examined, within each match, whether and how much each gender deteriorates or improves at crucial stages of the game, explains Dr. Danny Cohen-Zada of BGU’s Department of Economics.

"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," elaborates Dr. Mosi Rosenboim of BGU’s Department of Management.

Ultimately the researchers would love to shed additional light on gender and pressure in the labor market, says Cohen-Zada. “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,” he stated.

To be clear, the sample is not small: their analysis is based on 4,127 games between women and 4,153 men's tennis games.

But does that apply to the board room? We don't know yet, one reason being that board rooms would not – should not – insist on gender homogeneity.

"There'll be no history today": Roger Federer and the Grand SlamCredit: YouTube

"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 Dr. 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."

However, the results were striking enough to warrant more investigation, they conclude.

What lies behind this female toughness in comparison with the male's vapors on the tennis court is anybody's guess. Women have been arguing for millennia that if men had to give birth, the human race would end. This team settles for a biochemical speculation: cortisol release following stress.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that gets released in response to stress and low blood sugar, both of which certainly characterize pro tennis players on the court, with the eyes of the audience and cameras keenly watching their every blow, strike and slip. The hormone (with fellow hormone epinephrine) is famously involved in the so-called "fight-or-flight" response to a threat. It causes a spike in energy production at the expense of processes that are not required for immediate survival.

Other studies, says the BGU team, have already shown that high cortisol concentration in the blood correlates with poor second serves in tennis (and ruins one's golf game too).

“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,” postulates paper co-author Dr. Offer Moshe Shapir of the Center for Business Education and Research at NYU Shanghai.

Or maybe females simply handle the cortisol spike better. Whatever the cause, if women in high-powered positions are fewer than men and earn less too, it evidently isn't because they can't handle the pressure.