Gender and the Labour Market: Evidence From Experiments

Ghazala Azmat,Reader of Economics, Queen Mary University of London; Research Associate at the Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics, and Barbara Petrongolo, Professor of Economics, Queen Mary University and Research Associate, Centre for Economic Performance, LSE. Originally published at VoxEU.

Women have made major inroads in labour markets throughout the past century. As a result, there has been a clear convergence in their levels of human capital investment and their employment prospects and outcomes relative to those of men. But while in most rich countries the gender gap in education has closed – and even reversed – there remain considerable gender differences in pay and employment levels, as well as in the types of activities that men and women perform in the labour market.

Labour economists have long tried to understand these differences and three key channels have been identified as potential explanations:

  • Labour-market discrimination;
  • Gender differences in preferences; and
  • Productivity (Altonji and Blank 1999).

However, analysing these hypotheses with traditional tools and data in economics is not straightforward. The study of discrimination, for example, is often complicated by the presence of unmeasured confounding factors, while extracting clean information on people’s psychological traits from naturally-occurring data is often difficult, if not impossible.

By providing data explicitly suited to address the questions of interest and to allow tight control over the environment, the experimental approach provides a valuable source of evidence on these and other gender issues.1

Gender discrimination

Early economic work on discrimination extensively used the traditional approach of regression analysis on observational data. But increased awareness of the limitations of this approach has gradually shifted the emphasis of empirical work on this topic towards field experiments, such as audit and correspondence studies, which aim to compare outcomes in the same job for two individuals who are identical in all respects other than gender.

These experiments are widely viewed as the most compelling way of testing for discrimination. Audit studies compare interview call-back rates and/or job offer rates on a given job opening for pairs of applicants – one male and one female – with identical resumes. Correspondence studies compare call-back rates for fictitious applications instead of real-life auditors.

While it is not trivial to extrapolate a clear consensus view from experimental research on gender discrimination, the conclusions of this body of work can be broadly summarised as follows:

  • There is evidence of significant discrimination against women in high-status or male-dominated jobs as well as discrimination against men in female-dominated jobs.

Compared with the regression approach, however, the experimental approach tends to find far more limited evidence of discrimination against women in the marketplace. Different results from the two approaches may be driven by systematic gaps in unobservables in favour of men, which would clarify the unexplained gap in wages.

Despite recent advances, several aspects of discrimination have yet to be understood. In particular, disentangling the nature of discrimination has proved to be challenging, namely whether employers have a ‘taste for discrimination’, or whether they use gender to extrapolate a signal of unobserved components of productivity (‘statistical’ discrimination). Existing evidence on gender discrimination in the workplace is not suited to parsing its nature and typically expresses no claim to it. Progress in this direction might be made possible by enriching typical field experiment set-ups with tighter researcher control on elements directly linked to the nature of discrimination.

Finally, while research has focused on discrimination in hiring practices, experiments have offered little insight into on-the-job discrimination, such as gender discrimination in earnings, and on how anticipated discrimination in the labour might feed back into individuals’ choices in human capital accumulation or job search.

Individual preferences

The traditional economic approach to understanding gender differences in labour-market outcomes has focused on demand-side explanations, such as employer discrimination, as well as on supply-side constraints that are based on educational differences or family responsibility.

More recently, economists have considered alternative supply-side explanations for gender differences in outcomes (Croson and Gneezy 2009, Bertrand 2011). For example, potential gender differences in psychological attributes – including preferences for risk and competition, as well as concerns about other people – might offer insights into gender gaps. Experiments offer a useful methodology for studying behaviour and strategic interaction in a controlled environment – and they can be adapted to elicit gender differences in preferences in spheres potentially associated with labour-market success.

Occupational and industry segregation of men and women is one of the leading components of gender gaps in earnings – and these have been widely documented. As jobs in different sectors offer different arrays of job security, earnings stability and working conditions, systematic gender differences in preferences for risk and competition have the potential to shape gaps in earnings through job sorting behaviour.

Job-related risks (such as job-loss or earning volatility) are typically rewarded by higher mean earnings, and high-risk sectors tend to be male-dominated. If women are more risk-averse than men, they end up being overrepresented in jobs with lower mean and variance salaries.

  • Lab experiments have often found that men are more tolerant of risk than women. While some attribute these differences to the emotional reaction to uncertain situations, others report that they are related to confidence.

High-profile careers typically develop in highly competitive settings, in which rewards are linked to relative, rather than absolute, performance.

  • Lab experiments have detected significant gender differences in attitudes towards competition.

For example, men thrive in competitive environments and they have a greater tendency than women to self-select into these environments.

  • Another hypothesis for why earnings of men and women differ, even on identical jobs, is that men and women bargain salary differently.

In the psychology literature, it has been suggested that women earn less than their male counterparts because they avoid competitive negotiation. The experimental results on gender differences in negotiation and social preferences are somewhat mixed and depend strongly on context. For example, women’s performance is more strongly affected by the gender of whom they work with or whom they compete against than men’s performance.

Finally, there has been a great deal of interest in whether men and women exhibit different degrees of social preferences and, in particular, whether other-regarding attitudes such as altruism, fairness or envy may play a stronger role in female than in male decisions.

  • Gender differences in social preferences might help us understand why men and women select into certain sectors or jobs, for example, women tend to be overrepresented in the social sector.

Moreover, these differences may have an impact on gender outcomes in a given job, as individuals may take into account their social preferences when negotiating wages and collaborating with coworkers. Various lab studies based on simple sharing games conclude that women are more sensitive than men to equity considerations, but find no systematic evidence of gender differences in trust or in the willingness to contribute to public goods.

While evidence from various experimental settings suggests that women and men may differ in traits that are potentially related to labour-market success, the causes – nature, nurture, or the interaction of the two – and the economic consequences of such differences are not entirely understood. On the nature side, obvious differences between men and women related to, for example, childbirth and physical strength may have an impact on how well men and women fare in the labour market. On the nurture side, preferences may have roots in the education system, the household, or society at large. Understanding nature and nurture components of gender differences in behaviour is a key issue, with clear policy implications.

An important next step is to understand how findings from the lab on psychological attributes and preferences would map onto the labour market and whether there is scope for policy. While one may conjecture that disparities observed in the lab have implications for labour-market outcomes, more direct evidence from the workplace is needed to draw useful conclusions for gender gaps in real markets. Moreover, from a policy perspective, the prescriptions will differ depending on how traits are formed and how important they are in influencing outcomes.

Group preferences

A natural progression from the study of individual preferences has been to understand their role in group settings. If different psychological traits lead men and women to make different choices in similar contexts, the gender composition of teams becomes a relevant factor in collective decision-making. Higher female participation in the labour market has implied changing workplace demographics and more gender-diverse teams. In high-profile professions, such as politics or the corporate sector, these changes have been eased by the introduction of explicit gender quotas in a number of countries.

Despite a large body of lab evidence on individual preferences, experimental studies of gender and preferences at the team level is relatively scarce. One of the main problems with studying gender and groups is that groups are typically formed endogenously. Recent reforms that mandate certain levels of female representation on boards of directors offer a valuable, quasi-experimental setting to study the gender composition of teams and performance.

The first country to implement gender quota laws was Norway in 2003, followed by Spain, Finland, Iceland, and France. One study of the impact of female presence on boards on firm performance exploits the Norwegian reform, which requires listed companies to achieve 40% female board representation within two years. The research finds important effects of female board representation, notably that the constraints imposed by the quota implied a decline in stock prices and operating profits.

While quota reforms and other field and lab experiments offer valuable insights into the consequences of gender diversity, research on this issue is still very limited, not least because it is restricted to a small and selected group of women. Quota policies, as well as business games among MBA students, focus on women who may not be fully representative of the female workforce. The representation of women in decision-making at lower levels of responsibility can thus help to form a broader picture of the impact of gender diversity, and attenuate the stark selection of women at the top.

Concluding remarks

Experiments offer a novel and useful methodology that is being used widely in almost all areas of economics. In gender economics, the experimental approach offers a way to answer questions previously believed to be unanswerable because of data limitations, as well as new techniques to identify mechanisms and results in older topics traditionally studied by labour economists.

Despite recent advances, however, several important aspects of gender differences in labour-market success have to date been only partially explored experimentally. There is clear scope for further research in several directions concerning the nature of gender discrimination, the labour-market consequences of gender differences in preferences established in the lab, and the sources of such differences.


Altonji, Joseph and Rebecca Blank (1999), “Race and Gender in the Labor Market”, in O Ashenfelter and D Card (eds.), Handbook of Labor Economics, vol. 3C: 3143-3259. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Bertrand, Marianne (2011), “New Perspectives on Gender”, in O Ashenfelter and D Card (eds.) Handbook of Labor Economics, vol. 4B: 1545-1592. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Charness, Gary and Peter Kuhn (2011), “Lab and Labor: What Can Labor Economists Learn from the Lab?”, in O Ashenfelter and D Card (eds.) Handbook of Labor Economics, vol. 4A: 229-330.

Croson, Rachel, and Nancy R. Buchan (1999), “Gender and Culture: International Experimental Evidence from Trust Games.” The American Economic Review 89(2): 386–91.

List, John A and Imran Rasul (2011), “Field Experiments in Labor Economics”, in O Ashenfelter and D Card (eds.) Handbook of Labor Economics, vol. 4A: 104-228.

1 The growing usage of field and lab experiments in labour economics is discussed by List and Rasul (2011) and Charness and Kuhn (2011), respectively.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Dave

    I will bite…. And I offer this comment with much trepidation. As stated in other comments I work as a critical care nurse. From my personal observations I see woman “bitching” about certain situations frequently, while us guy nurses generally just go about getting it done. There is also always much more “drama” with the fairer sex then with the guys at work. This is why male nurses are always sought after. I know what I have typed is inflammatory, but it is what I see on a daily basis in my job as a minority male in a predominantly female job. To be clear there are many very calm cool and collected female nurses in critical care, but you still see the differences between the sexes. Men just want to get through the day to earn their coin and go home, woman love to socialize at work.

    Do not get me wrong, I am a huge fan of woman. My wife is very straight forward and without drama as well as my 2 daughters(with the exception of their early to late teen years…can’t believe I survived).

    So back to pay/job discrimination…..I do not know if my descriptions above relate to pay/job discrimination. What I do know is male nurses are a hot commodity in a saturated field. My wife who has been a trauma nurse for years has also verified my observations, and it galls her to no end because she gets lumped in with the drama crowd until people get to know her.

    1. sd

      Perhaps you should encourage hospitals to get rid of the female nurses since, as you describe, they are so ineffective.

      1. Dave

        I never stated that they are ineffective, and there are many female nurses that can run circles around me. Perhaps you should brush up on reading comprehension instead. A snark for a snark.

        Now if you said I am implying there is more of a P.I.T.A. inference in my comment I would agree.

        Take it or leave it I could care less, but your response is how conversations devolve.

        1. sd

          You lumped all of the women vs. all of the men, with the exception of your wife. What did you expect?

    2. Kurt Sperry

      Categorical distinctions, even when based in fact, often have so little predictive utility on a case by case basis that they have no real importance. It’s essentially just lazy thinking to apply them. Hiring one sex preferentially because of categorical assumptions is exactly such lazy thinking.

      In a perfect meritocracy most professions would be populated by a close approximation of whatever constitutes the general population. If that isn’t happening in a particular area, it’s a pretty good sign the playing field isn’t level.

  2. Cynthia

    Tech companies tend to pay on talent, except in the upper management. There, women have just as much chance to be overpaid failures as do the men. Remember Carly?

    1. sd

      I’m surprised you missed the news about tech posted here at NC recently.

      Few female engineers and execs at Google

      Snip: Google is hardly alone. Cisco, Intel, Dell, eBay and Ingram Micro (IM) all struggle to attract women as well, according to government diversity reports obtained by CNNMoney last year. Most other technology companies do not make their demographic data public.

  3. Art Eclectic

    I’m a woman who’s worked my entire life in male dominated industries. My experiences:

    *Negotiating ability is a huge issue. Our fathers don’t teach us to negotiate and thus we tend to suck at it as adults. More men (and women) need to teach their girls to not to accept the first offer out on the table and not to be afraid to ask for more.

    *There is a huge bias towards men in many professions that has to do with child-bearing, child-rearing. A woman is assumed to have a different set of priorities that revolve around children and home, vs a man who is assumed to be totally focused on his role as provider (and thus harder worker.)

    *Men are far more competitive and aggressive – thus they create ecosystems where where men thrive. Women are just as competent as men when it comes to finance, business management, and science/tech. The reason those industries are so distinctly “bro” dominated has to do with the competitive and aggressive traits that the ecosystems reward. Women famously bail out of coding and tech careers because they can’t stand the environment, not because they can’t handle the work.

    *That lessened degree of competitiveness and aggression is also why you see fewer women in the Fortune 100 CEO list. Women are regarded as starting and running companies just as competently as men, but the key difference is that most women will not gut their companies in the name of “shareholder value.” They won’t aggressively destroy a product over a promised bonus. Men can and will burn down the village in order to save their own jobs/bonuses. *Not that this is true of all women, there’s always a Margaret Thatcher or two out there.

    *At certain levels, commenter Dave up above is totally right. But I suggest that this is a management and leadership problem more than it’s a “woman” problem. I’ve seen badly managed men behave the exact same way.

    *The entire system of “hours=work” is ultimately at fault. Because of childcare issues, women tend to work fewer hours and the assumption is that they are less productive, which is frankly rarely the case. Hours do not equal work or productivity. If you reward more hours, you get more hours, not more productivity. If you’re baseline for productivity is who spent the most hours at the office today, then you’re a terrible manager.

    1. Oregoncharles

      “A woman is assumed to have a different set of priorities that revolve around children and home, vs a man who is assumed to be totally focused on his role as provider (and thus harder worker.) ”
      Those are the traditional roles; but on a fundamental level, it’s true. This is one of the great failures in our move to gender equality: we haven’t figured out how to reconcile the conflicting demands of parenthood (since involving fathers is one solution) and career. There are some fairly obvious potential solutions: parental leave laws, shorter work week, better childcare systems – but most are ruled out by our present politics. And I don’t see them being systematically addressed by current feminists. We need a 3rd Wave. The good part: addressing the implications of equality is going to involve both sexes, since both will obviously stand to benefit.

  4. TheCatSaid

    “The research finds important effects of female board representation, notably that the constraints imposed by the quota implied a decline in stock prices and operating profits.”

    Interesting and revealing that only these 2 (negative) impacts of female board representation are remarked on.
    Nothing about qualitative changes, if any, in either how the board feels, how it carries out its work, and qualitative impact on the company and long-term impact.

    When I think of GM’s new CEO and see her relatively pro-active approach to straightening up important issues relating to safety and customer care (at least, compared to the prior CEO), these are bound to have some negative financial impacts on the company but isn’t it better for the company qualitatively, and longer-term also financially, that these changes are made?

    I have read elsewhere that in groups, 30% is the minimum requirement for a group to benefit from including an under-represented gender, but that once that threshold is reached the qualitative change is significant and profoundly beneficial.

  5. Oregoncharles

    Interesting that there are so few comments on this, even though it’s a topic that affects all of us. It’s a dangerous subject, as sd’s response to Dave’s post makes clear.
    I haven’t worked in the kind of environments it’s about, so I won’t comment on that (besides it being dangerous).

    Instead, I’ll bring up another aspect: the under-representation of women in politics. I’m an organizer in a party that prioritizes feminism and equal representation. Despite that, it’s extraordinarily difficult to get women to run for office, to take responsible positions in the party, or even to come to meetings. I realize that family responsibilities have something to do with that, but it applies even to those too young or too old to be caring for children. Those who do turn up and do run for office are enormously appreciated.

    I wish I understood the problem better, but I’m always asking the wrong women – those who do show up. I just hope it isn’t that male Greens are obnoxious or hard to work with – though some of us are, even for me. Still, it’s not an organization distinguished for machismo.

    A fundamental problem, mentioned in some places above, is that our institutions were designed by and for men – which is less true in traditionally female fields, like education or nursing (despite Dave’s experience). Insofar as there are important personality differences, women are unlikely to be comfortably in those settings – and they generally improve them, for everybody, by participating.

    1. Art Eclectic

      Oregoncharles, I’ve contemplated running for office many times, but the reason I haven’t ever gone beyond thinking about it wasn’t the work or the hours, it was the highly aggressive nature of politics. As I said above, men create ecosystems where MEN thrive and politics is a game designed by men. Women are excellent organizers and managers, but the aggressive nature of politics and particularly campaigning is a turn off.

      I think we are all starting to see significant changes as women become more and more dominant in various areas, but it’s going to be a long slog to change culture in politics, finance, and tech.

      1. Oregoncharles

        I wish you’d reconsider that. Judging by your other posts, you could bring a lot to the field. It’s true that politics is largely about aggression – and TBF, I’ve never run myself. However, campaigning is largely a slog given over to meeting people, as many people as possible.

        1. Art Eclectic

          Meeting people is not the thing that makes me uncomfortable – it’s raising money in exchange for preferential treatment. Running for office takes LOTS of cash, the the people who put that cash out here expect something in return. At the local level, it’s votes for local laws and regulations, at the national level it’s legislation that effects the entire country. I flat refuse to guarantee preferred status for anyone, doing what’s right is doing what’s right.

          Politics is a game for those willing to be bought in exchange for the power to change the rules and set policy.

    2. TheCatSaid

      A number of years ago I came across a small book that addressed this topic: Women and Political Power: Europe since 1945 by Ruth Henig and Simon Henig. Their research revealed the importance of electing women at local elections as precursor to achieving more gender balance at national level. Among other things, this book changed my thoughts about quotas. The differences in election results and, more importantly, in the resulting evolution of cultures and societies as a result of women’s strong participation throughout political levels and organizations following implementation of various quota systems, were quite striking.

      Susan Webber’s excellent article also addresses this from a different standpoint (research shows that people tend to choose people who are like themselves):

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        I wish we could choose elected leaders the way that orchestras now choose players: The players audition from behind a screen, so no tribal biases come into play.

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