The gender pay gap: discrimination, culture or women’s preferences? There are so many reasons put forward for the gap’s continued persistence. One possible reason that has been gaining traction is that women may be less competitive compared to men.
Are women perhaps put off by competitive work places? A recent NBER paper argues that “women disproportionately shy away from competitive work settings“. So women might, for example, be less keen to work in jobs where a large proportion of the wage depends on individual performance. Whether this factor is enough to explain the differential in wages is another question: in another study, Understanding the Gender Pay Gap, Alan Manning and Farzad Saidi find that although women are less likely to work under performance pay contracts, the gap is small. On its own, they argue that this cannot explain the full size of the gender pay gap.
If there is a difference in competitiveness across men and women, one question is whether it’s to do with culture or biology. Are we bringing up girls to be less competitive? One way of trying to answer this is to compare attitudes of men and women to competitiveness across countries. One study in this area compares 9-12 year-olds across Columbia and Sweden. Sweden tends to score higher on gender equality indices, so if it’s culture that drives the difference in competitiveness across the genders, you would expect results to be different across the two countries.
These lucky kids got to compete in skipping, running, maths and word searches, to earn points that were converted into items of stationery at the end of the study. I don’t know about you, but stationery held more of a fascination for me when I was child. Especially different coloured gel pens. Anyway, I digress.
Surprisingly, there was little difference in competitiveness across genders in Columbia. In Sweden, there were differences, depending on the task. Boys were more likely to choose to compete, but on some tasks, girls increased their performance when they knew they were competing.
So, culture might play a role, but it’s far from clear what the mechanism is. So what might biology have to say?
It’s pretty infuriating when other people (i.e. men) try to explain away your behaviour by vaguely muttering something about hormones. This paper is the academic equivalent. Charmingly titled “The Menstrual Cycle and Performance Feedback Alter Gender Differences in Competitive Choices“, the study looks at how women’s willingness to take on more competitive roles changes over their menstrual cycles.
Female readers, I am sorry to report that hormones apparently do explain differences in attitudes to competitiveness. The authors find that “women in the high hormone phase are substantially more willing to compete than women in the low phase, though still somewhat less willing to compete than men. ”
Male readers, here’s a tip: don’t go on about the last result to your female friends and relatives. They probably won’t appreciate it.