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Lise Vesterlund: Redefining a “Woman’s Place”

Women are missing from boardrooms and executive positions worldwide. School of Arts and Sciences Mellon Associate Professor of Economics Lise Vesterlund is working to discover why—and what we might be able to do about it.

About Vesterlund

Lise Vesterlund’s office in Posvar Hall is unadorned but for her books, a drawing by her 5-year-old daughter, pictures of her daughter and 2-year-old son, and a fishbowl filled with water in which float a dozen roses (a gift from her husband that she is trying to keep beautiful as long as she can).

Similarly, Vesterlund herself, simply dressed and coiffed, is the picture of Scandinavian elegance. There is a slight trace in her speech of Copenhagen, where she was born and lived through college and the place she returns each summer with her family.

Here is a lesson about Vesterlund’s character: When she came to the University of Wisconsin to study for a year during college, she was not allowed to take the regular economics courses because she was not an econ major. So instead, she took the most advanced courses she could find, in the process wowing her professors, who convinced her to stay and get her PhD.

Though what drew her to economics was her interest in charitable giving, Vesterlund found something shocking in her graduate classes. The other female students did not talk, did not discuss, did not speak up in class. She, of course, did, and this was at times remarked upon by the other women.

Being from a family where both parents worked and “it was never mentioned that I was a girl and not a boy,” before Vesterlund came to the United States, “it never occurred to me that because I was female, I was supposed to be doing something else.”

She sees the pattern still repeating today in classes she teaches. She finds it disturbing because “oftentimes, these quiet girls know a lot more than these loud guys.”

Getting Women to Speak Up

Vesterlund has dedicated her career to discovering why women stay quiet and how to get them to speak up.

She did a landmark experiment in which participants completed a simple math task. Men and women were equally good at it. But when they were offered the opportunity to compete against each other, and be rewarded for winning, only a third of the women chose to compete, while three quarters of the men did.

Why would women shy away from competition? Vesterlund says it must be a combination of nature and nurture, but she offers some innovative solutions.

Research Results

In work that she is hoping to publish soon, she has looked at affirmative action and how it impacts an organization’s ability to recruit qualified applicants. The traditional thinking goes that if you make it a policy to hire, say, one woman for every man, you’ll be passing up more qualified men for less qualified women.

However, Vesterlund’s data show that need not be the case. Because such a policy means that women would primarily have to compete against each other, not against men, the quality of the female applicant pool actually increases. In her study, this makes up for whatever detrimental effect affirmative action might have on the male applicant pool.

Apparently, women have no such qualms about competing when it is against each other. “If this carries over to the real world, the lesson is: Never do affirmative action secretly,” says Vesterlund.

Future research plans include how to best use women within an organization. Vesterlund theorizes that women may be more productive in a team environment, rather than the competitive model of “every man for himself.” Furthermore, it is possible that men, when put in teams, may compete against each other more, leading to greater gains.

In her own work, Vesterlund finds she is happier when she is not the only author on a paper, for example. “Early on, I did more by myself, and it was very stressful,” she says. “But now, if there’s somebody else to commiserate with, I don’t feel so bad – we both screwed up,” she says, laughing.

For more information about Lise Vesterlund, visit her Pitt Web page or her faculty bio page in the Department of Economics.

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