Risky business? Why women earn less than men

What keeps women from getting what they want in the workplace

Posted Mar 29, 2011

Although the Supreme Court ruled against the massive class action case of women employees vs. Walmart, the fact remains that women earn about 80% of the salaries of men, according to the 2011 White House Report on Women in America. The class action suit will no doubt continue at the lower court level, but meanwhile, there are many reasons for the gender gap, many of which are outlined in this compelling report. Packed with informative summaries, the report highlights the many ways that men and women in the U.S. differ in patterns of every major area of life-- health, living arrangements, education, employment, race, social class, crime, and violence.  But no matter how you slice the data, the fact remains that women are underpaid relative to men who hold similar jobs at similar levels of occupational status.

The gender gap doesn't just apply to salaries. Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that men are more likely to be hired in our slowly recovering economy by a huge fraction.  One reason is that women are traditionally more likely to work in the fields of education and social service, and employment in these areas is not bouncing back from the recession. But it's not only occupational category. Employers are re-hiring men more than women because they believe that men need the jobs more than do women. This, despite the fact that wives now contribute roughly 30 percent of a married couple's earnings, and nearly a quarter of children under 18 live in single-mother households.  Biases against women can take many forms, as is evident in the class action case being considered today by the Supreme Court alleging sex bias against women. Women in academia, even though they may begin to equal men in number, also face subtle and not-so-subtle biases that keep them from realizing their maximum potential, according to a recent report on MIT faculty.

Above and beyond old-fashioned overt discrimination, biases against women start to take hold in the minds of women themselves, causing them to doubt and question their abilities. They are also more likely to suffer from the negative effects of gender stereotyping in judgments about their competence.  When this happens, they're on their way to inhibiting their performance in the workplace

Weak, emotional, hysterical, gullible, dependent, and poor at math are a few of the common negative stereotypes about women. In an amazing phenomenon known as stereotype threat, when women in the psychology lab are triggered to think of their gender, they actually perform more poorly on tests of their analytic ability. The triggering effect can occur simply by asking a woman to record her gender on a questionnaire, particularly if she's been told that the experimental task will diagnose her ability to solve analytical problems.

Activating the gender role stereotype can also cause a woman to avoid taking risks. In a recent study by psychologists Priyanka Carr and Claude Steele, when women's stereotypes are activated, they are less likely to take risks. Groups of both college and employed women were compared in their willingness to gamble in the stereotype threat condition Consistent with the study's prediction, women were more risk averse (i.e. less willing to gamble) when they were made aware of their gender prior to taking the test.

A female employee's risk aversion can have a host of negative consequences. She is less likely to risk her boss's disapproval by asking for a raise.  She's less willing to make risky business decisions. Her supervisors see her as lacking in the cut-throat entrepreneurial skills that will lead her to seek new and potentially lucrative investments or striking out in new directions with bold ideas.

This impressive study was not only well-controlled but also important in that the participants were actual women in the workplace, not just college students. It also echoes the findings of a far less well-controlled but equally fascinating analysis of women's risk-taking behavior on television game shows.

If you watch "Jeopardy!" you have probably developed your own hypotheses about why certain types of players go home as well-paid champions while others slink off the set with close to nothing. The obvious factors seem to be intelligence, especially the "crystallized" kind (involving knowledge about the world), and reaction time (being able to hit the buzzer quickly). But gender is perhaps at least as important a factor.  According to a study published in the journal Sex Roles Sheila Brownlow and colleagues some years ago, men are more likely to win big when crunch time comes around. Risk taking carries the day, all other factors being equal.

Here's where stereotype threat comes into the picture. Alex Trebek, the game's host, often makes remarks about the gender of the contestants when introducing them, often in an attempt to make a joke. Stereotype threat activated, the women in fact become more cautious, if not less mentally agile. In this regards, it's a bit ironic that the computer who played against two champs (both men) in a recent highly publicized contest was given a male identity ("Watson.")

What can you do about the stereotype threat effect on risk-taking? Here are five tips:

1.  Avoid invoking the stereotype threat against others. Teachers, employers, and even game show hosts need to monitor their actions and speech to avoid drawing attention to people's gender (and other possible stereotypes).

2. Identify your own inner biases.  You can take the Project Implicit online test to find out about your own hidden stereotypes. Many of us say we have no biases against others when in fact we do.

3. Learn to resist stereotype threat. This online site will help you protect yourself against stereotype threat by showing you ways to build up your inner defenses.

4. Educate others about the dangers of stereotyping. Diversity training in the workplace or school, if properly done, can go a long way toward reducing the expression of these implicit biases.

5.  Learn ways to lobby for yourself. Force yourself to overcome the inner obstacles that keep you from asking for the promotion, raise, or improved working condition you desire. The Wal-Mart women overcame their inner inhibitions to claim their rights as workers.

We can't always expect others to be stereotype-free, but we can ourselves work to reduce our own stereotypes and to reduce the way that stereotype threat hampers our own performance and success.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011


Brownlow, S., Whitener, R., & Rupert, J.M. (1998). "I'll take gender differences for $1000!" Domain-specific intellectual success on "Jeopardy." Sex Roles, 38, 269-285.

Carr, P. & C. M. Steele (2010) Stereotype threat affects financial decision makingPsychological Science, 21, 1411-1416