Research Spotlight: The Effect of Task Choice and Task Assignment on the Gender Earnings Gap: An Experimental Study

The gender earnings gap has been well-documented as a phenomenon that persists across occupations. In exploring the reasons behind this phenomenon, some studies have found that labor market discrimination or attitudes perpetuating stereotypes towards women help explain the gap. Other studies have shown that women enter negotiations less often and fare worse when they do negotiate. Previous research has revealed gender differences affect how individuals choose between easier and harder tasks, which may contribute to widening the gender earnings gap. Specifically, women may spend less time on challenging and rewarding tasks than their male counterparts, and men choose a challenging task much more frequently than women, even in situations where both genders have equal ability measured in experiments.

Higher-paid jobs are often more challenging. Compared to men, women may be less likely to self-select into more challenging and higher-paid jobs, which may contribute to the gender earnings gap. If high-performing women are disproportionately left out from higher-paying jobs, then we might expect a large gender earnings gap. In a recent article “The Effect of Task Choice and Task Assignment on the Gender Earnings Gap: An Experimental Study,” published at European Economic Review, my coauthor (Xiaofei Pan, Assistant Professor of Economics, Bryant University) and I explore how three different effects may contribute to the gender earnings gap through three distinct channels.

In our experiment, we first investigate the Task Choice Effect by comparing earnings within women (men) who chose different tasks yet were assigned the same task to address whether those who self-select into the hard and higher-paid task earn more. Then, we explore the Task Assignment Effect by comparing earnings within women (men) who chose the same task yet were assigned different tasks to understand whether, controlling for self-selection, working on the hard and higher-paid task impacts one’s earnings. Finally, we isolate the Gender Effect by comparing earnings between men and women who chose the same and were assigned the same task to study whether women earn differently from men, and explore the determinants of the behavioral difference between men and women.

Our results show that men who prefer the hard and higher-paid task are more likely to obtain higher earnings regardless of the task they are assigned. In contrast, we find that women obtain higher earnings when they work on a hard and higher-paid task even if their initial task choice is the easy and lower-paid one. Our findings are consistent and robust across task stereotypes. Our results imply that motivating women to work on more challenging and rewarding tasks is likely to reduce the gender earnings gap. The results of our study provide scholarly support for workplace mechanisms that provide greater opportunities for female employees to obtain more challenging and rewarding positions.

Dr. Kai Ou is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at FSU. Dr. Ou’s research covers institutional effects on economic and political behavior, voting and elections, religion, and competition and coordination between social and ethnic groups. You can learn more about Dr. Ou here.

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