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NEW YORK (MainStreet) – There have been many explanations offered as to why men traditionally make more money than women in the workplace. The most typical include discrimination or a woman's need to leave a job temporarily after having children, but a new study suggests that women may make less money because they are more willing to take less competitive (and therefore lower-paying) positions than their male counterparts.

"People have suggested that men are more attracted to competition than women and that accounts for the differences,” John List, professor of economics at University of Chicago, who authored the study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, explained in a press release.

To test the theory, researchers posted job advertisements for administrative assistants – considered the most common job in the country – on Internet job boards in 16 of the nation’s largest cities between January and April 2010.  

One ad, designed to be gender-neutral, described the job responsibilities as preparing reports based on news stories and fulfilling typical office tasks. The second ad specified that it was for a sports news assistant position that had similar job duties but also included writing sports stories.

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Once applicants responded to the initial postings, they were given information about salary offerings. Some applicants were told the job paid $15 an hour. Some were told they would be paid a base salary of $13.50 with a $3 bonus depending on how he or she did in comparison to other workers. Still others were offered a $12 hourly base pay with a $6 bonus if the employee outperformed other workers. Finally, a final group was told the job had a competition-based wage, but that comparisons would be determined by the productivity of people working in teams.

In total, 6,779 people responded to the ads, and 2,702 actually applied once they knew the wage structure. These applicants included 1,566 women and 1,136 men (20 of who would, in fact, go on to receive the position). According to List, when the salary potential was most dependent on competition, men were 94% more likely to apply than women.
Researchers also found that women who worked in cities with typically higher wages were less inclined to put themselves in a competitive pay scheme. Female residents of cities like San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Boston, where median wages were closer to what researchers offered, were less inclined to apply than those in cities like Houston, where the median wage was around $10 at the time, indicating that the potential earning power had to be considerably higher than the local average for a woman to enter the competitive arena.

One interpretation suggests that women themselves are solely responsible for creating their own glass ceiling, but List offers the more likely cause that the social norms behind women’s apparent aversion to more competitive positions are established well before they enter the workforce.

Boys receive more encouragement growing up to be competitive, particularly in sports, while girls frequently are encouraged to be more cooperative, List explained.

Do you think women are less likely to apply for a job that requires them to compete for a salary? Let us know in the comments section below!