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Using Curiosity Against the Wage Gap

Women are not the fairer sex but the most curious, which might help them.

Key points

  • Women tend to shy away from competition and negotiation.
  • Lack of confidence in their skills might play a part in keeping women down in the workplace.
  • Women choose to be paid competitively as often as men if it means it will satisfy their curiosity.
  • For underconfident women, appealing to curiosity might help overcome self-imposed barriers.

One of the reasons for wage differences between men and women might be purely psychological. Research shows that women tend to shy away from competition and negotiations. The point is not new. Almost 20 years ago, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever explained in their book Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide that men ask for what they want (say, a wage raise) twice as often as women and initiate negotiations four times more often. Firms are not evil, but they are there to make profits: if workers don’t ask for a raise, firms will not spontaneously give up profits to offer one. And so women often end up earning less.

The fact that women generally tend to shy away from negotiation and competition and hence hurt themselves on the job has been shown in a number of widely-discussed experiments in behavioral economics. For example, in a famous experiment, Niederle and Vesterlund gave men and women a choice to carry out a task based on individual piece-rate remuneration or through a competitive scheme in which the best would be better paid. Unsurprisingly, men selected the competitive scheme far more often than women. Again, if women elect not to compete, there will be little chance for them to become the top earners.

It seems, however, that women possess a different trait that might be used to counteract some of these negative effects: curiosity.

Unfair Women?

In my work with J. García-Segarra and A. Ritschel, published in the Journal of Economic Psychology a few years ago, we let men and women carry out a routine task for which, in principle, there are no gender differences: add up sets of five two-digit numbers (e.g., 30 + 87 + 19 + 16 + 38 = ?). Each participant was assigned to a group of five people and asked to choose among two possible payment methods for the group. One of the group members was later randomly chosen, and his or her decision determined how people were paid.

Each correct answer of each group member was remunerated and paid into a common fund. The question was how to distribute the earnings. The first choice was an “equal pay” method. That is, the group earnings were divided equally. Mind you, this is equality of outcomes and has nothing to do with fairness. Quite the opposite! Under equal pay, people who worked harder would be paid the same as people who slacked off. So this is not “same pay for the same job.” The second choice was a performance-based split which would give a larger share to those who had solved more problems correctly. This remunerated hard work better, but it created competition.

Most men chose to go with the performance-based split, while most women wanted equal pay. Again, this is not “fairness.” So, what is it? We also asked our participants how well they expected to perform compared to others. Now, if you believe you are poor at math or just not very precise, and if you are selfish, it is a good idea to choose equal pay, because under the performance-based split, you will get less than an equal share simply because you will contribute less than an equal share. Equal pay will give you more than you deserve.

Underconfident Women

And that is precisely the reason which also explains the results of Niederle and Vesterlund. As extensive research shows, women often tend to be underconfident compared to men and expect to perform worse. Very often, they expect to perform worse than they will actually perform! So, since women in our experiment expected to perform poorly, they chose equal pay rather than a performance-based split, not out of the kindness of their hearts but rather out of selfishness and a lack of confidence. A healthy dose of selfishness is not a problem if we are discussing getting your dues in the market. But underconfidence is a problem, especially if it does not correspond to reality.

Noelle Otto/Pexels
Noelle Otto/Pexels

And how does curiosity enter the picture? The second group of participants faced the same choice as above, but with a twist. If they chose equal pay, they would not be told their actual performance (how many sums they got right). Also, they would not be told how well they compared to others. If they chose the performance split, on the contrary, they would be told all that.

Just like that, gender differences evaporated. Now men and women chose the performance-based split in the same proportions without significant differences! That is, while women wish to avoid performance-based payment more often than men, as soon as a tradeoff involving curiosity about their own performance is introduced, they behave exactly like men.

The differences do not end there. When it comes to their own performance, men and women are also curious about different things. In a recent, similar experiment conducted in Spain, participants were only told their performance compared to others if they assessed their own performance well. Compared to a treatment where the information was not given, men became more overconfident, reporting higher expected ranks, and women became more underconfident, reporting lower expected ranks. The explanation is simple: men especially value knowing whether they are better than they thought, while women especially value knowing whether they are worse than they thought.

Make Curiosity Work for You

The big picture is that a lack of confidence in their skills might keep some women in the marketplace, but this is old news. What is new is that curiosity is a stronger force than we might have realized, and capitalizing on it might help women break some self-imposed barriers.

Using curiosity in job market regulations or institutions might be difficult. But if you are a woman struggling with doubts about your skills and capabilities, just remind yourself that, if you try, you will get to know a bit more about those. You don’t start competing to beat the others but to learn what you can do. You don’t start a negotiation to fight against your employer but to learn how far you can go.

Whenever men are motivated by the sheer thrill of competing, women might use curiosity about themselves instead.


Alós-Ferrer, C., García-Segarra, J., & Ritschel, A. (2018). Performance Curiosity, Journal of Economic Psychology 64, 1-17.

Babcock, L., & Laschever, S. (2003). Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Barreda-Tarrazona, I., García-Gallego, A., García-Segarra, J., & Ritschel, A. (2022). A Gender Bias in Reporting Expected Ranks When Performance Feedback is at Stake, Journal of Economic Psychology 90, 102505

Niederle, M., & Vesterlund, L. (2007). Do Women Shy Away from Competition? Do Men Compete Too Much? Quarterly Journal of Economics 122(3), 1067-1101.

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