Are Gender Differences in Performance Innate or Socially Mediated?

In a study of Malawi farmers, women learn an agricultural technique as easily as men, but are unsuccessful in spreading this knowledge to others.


Gender gaps in income, health, and education exist globally, and are especially evident in developing countries. Women are less likely to succeed in these markets, and studies have investigated potential underlying causes of these gaps, such as discrimination or bias against women. Another potential, yet slightly controversial explanation is that there are innate gender differences in ability and behavior that contribute to this gender gap.

While research has previously been conducted on innate gender differences in attitudes towards risk or competition, these studies typically use laboratory experiments, which may not replicate the discriminatory interactions that take place in society. Therefore, this field experiment randomly assigned male and female maize farmers in Malawi communities the task of learning about a new agricultural technique and teaching peers about it. The authors assessed the subjects on their knowledge of the technique and tracked how others learned of and adopted the new technique. This method allowed researchers to understand the potential role of gender in 1) innate learning ability and 2) how a society accepts new ideas. Authors also investigated potentially gendered effects of providing performance-based financial incentives to the farmers.


Researchers did not find a gender gap in innate learning ability of an agricultural technique; however, when success in a market requires societal interaction, women underperform.

There was no statistically significant gender gap in the knowledge test of the agricultural technique.

  • Female teachers scored slightly higher on average than men on the knowledge test, but the difference is not statistically significant. Compared to untrained controls, knowledge of the technique was 20% higher on average for women with no performance-based financial incentives, 27% higher for women with incentives, 16% higher for men with no incentives and 26% higher for men with incentives.
  • Financial incentives significantly boosted knowledge retention among male teachers.
  • Financial incentives did not significantly boot knowledge retention among female teachers, as performance was not statistically significantly different across incentive/no incentive treatment groups.

Women were less successful than men in teaching others (regardless of learner gender). However, the farmers they did teach experienced better crop yields.

  • For non-incentivized teachers, knowledge transfer to the community was significantly higher when the teacher was male. Learners in communities with male teachers scored 10% higher on the knowledge test average compared to farmers in control communities, compared to learners in communities with female teacher who only scored 5% higher.
  • For incentivized teachers, this gender gap in knowledge did not exist. Learners with male or female incentivized teachers both scored 11% higher than farmers in control communities.
  • The underperformance in knowledge transfer by non-incentivized female teachers is not due to frictions between genders in teaching male learners.
    • For non-incentivized female teachers, knowledge transfer to the community is equally low for both male and female learners. Compared to control learners, female learners with female teachers scored 5% higher on knowledge tests, and male learners from female teachers scored 6% higher.
  • Community adoption of the technique was not statistically significantly different for male teachers compared to female teachers. For non-incentivized teachers, the community adoption rate was 3% higher with a male teacher and 2% higher with a female teacher compared to the control groups. For incentivized teachers, the community adoption rate was 6% higher for male teachers and 5% higher for female teachers compared to the control groups.
  •  At two years post-intervention, crop yields are 14-18% greater in villages with female teachers without financial incentives than in villages with male teachers without financial incentives.
  • At two years post-intervention, there is no statistical difference in crop yields across teacher gender for villages with teachers receiving financial incentives.

Female teachers, though equally competent as men in understanding a technology, are less able to spread knowledge to a group, though the gender gap was less stark when teachers received the incentives. The authors suggest the women teacher’s underperformance, especially in the non-incentive group, is related to perceptions of women as knowledgeable about farming or willingness to accept messages from women. Both male and female farmers were 7% less likely Policies that include incentives can induce women teachers to make greater effort to overcome gender-based discrimination.


Maize farming communities in 8 districts across Malawi were investigated. Either male or female residents (randomly assigned) were chosen to learn a new agricultural technique and utilize it in their own farms. These residents were asked to communicate about the new technology to other farmers in the village, and convince them to adopt the technique themselves. Candidates were identified in collaboration with community members. 48% of maize farms in the study were cultivated by women.

The authors also investigated the effects of performance-based incentives (financial incentives given to participants based on the overall community knowledge and adoption of the technique). In addition to a control, four treatments in total were investigated: male without incentives, male with incentives, female without incentives, female with incentives.

121 sections (groups of villages) were studied. 26 sections were randomly assigned as a “pure control” condition. 76 sections were randomly assigned to be a “pure treatment” condition, wherein only one randomly chosen village per section receives a treatment condition. The remaining 19 sections were “mixed treatment and control”, wherein one village was randomly selected to undergo a treatment and an additional village was used as a control.

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