Challenge-seeking and the gender wage gap: A lab-in-the-field experiment with cleaning personnel
A greater range of task options can motivate female employees to take on challenges and, as a result, benefit from potential higher earnings.
Despite recent gains in gender equity in the workplace, women remain underrepresented in management positions and are overrepresented in low-wage jobs. This imbalance contributes to the gender wage gap: in 2019, for example, women in Switzerland, the site of this study, earned an average of 12 percent less than men in terms of full-time equivalent wages.
Previous research has tied the gender wage gap to factors including discrimination against women, unequal access to professional opportunities, and employees' professional preferences, with men often choosing harder, higher-paying tasks than women. Recent evidence has examined the relationship between the gender wage gap and differences in male and female employees' responses to non-monetary aspects of their workplace environment, ultimately suggesting that female employees' behavior is often more context-dependent than their male counterparts'.
In this study, the authors examined gender differences in challenge-seeking behavior across different work contexts, defining challenge-seeking behavior as willingness to take up harder tasks after completing easier ones. To do so, they used a lab-in-the-field experiment at a Swiss commercial cleaning company to study employees' reactions to workplace challenges across two conditions: in one, employees were presented with two task options of easy and hard levels of difficulty, and, in the second, employees were presented with three task options of easy, hard, and very hard levels of difficulty. In their analysis, the authors compared male and female employees' willingness to take up more challenging tasks, tied to higher pay, when presented with two or three levels of difficulty as options.
More options in task difficulty resulted in more female participants choosing to engage in challenging tasks and, consequently, benefiting from the associated potential for higher earnings.
- When presented with two levels of difficulty, male participants engaged with the challenging task to a greater extent than women (73.7% vs. 27.5%).
When presented with three levels of difficulty, female participants engaged with challenging tasks at nearly double the rate as when they were only presented with two levels.
Male participants' engagement with challenging tasks remained high. (49.2% of female participants chose to work on a challenging task, 85.0% of male participants chose to work on a challenging task.)
Participants who chose to work on challenging tasks earned significantly more than those who did not. Female participants' earnings at each level of difficulty did not differ across conditions, while male participants earned more when presented with two options rather than three.
Female participants who chose to work on the easy task earned 1.22 Swiss francs when presented with two options and 1.20 Swiss francs when presented with three options)
Female participants who worked on either the hard or very hard task earned 2.85 Swiss francs when presented with two options and 2.83 Swiss francs when presented with three options.
Male participants who chose to work on the easy task earned 1.92 Swiss Francs when presented with two options and 1.40 Swiss Francs when presented with three options.
Male participants who chose to work on either the hard or very hard task earned 4.10 Swiss Francs when presented with two options vs 3.58 Swiss Francs when presented with three options.
Workplaces can motivate female employees to take on challenges and, as a result, benefit from potential higher earnings, by offering them a greater range of task options. The results suggest that career advice might be more effective if tailored to the different decision-making processes of female and male employees, with advice for women highlighting the full spectrum of potential career progressions and advice for men focusing on particularly promising career alternatives.
157 employees of a Swiss commercial cleaning company were recruited to participate in the study. Their average age was 43 years, and 75 percent were female. Participants were informed that they would receive their regular hourly wage for the time it took to participate, and that they could earn additional compensation through the experiment. The experiment was conducted between April 13 and April 27, 2015 across 17 sessions, each at a different worksite.
In Part 1, participants were asked to solve mazes of a low level of difficulty from a provided booklet. They received 0.30 Swiss Francs for each maze correctly solved and were allowed to skip mazes without penalty. After four minutes, the booklets were collected. Participants did not receive feedback on the number of mazes they successfully completed.
In Part 2, participants were asked to solve a second round of mazes, with multiple levels of difficulty presented as options. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two treatments: in one, participants could choose to complete easy or hard mazes, and, in the second, participants could choose to complete easy, hard, or very hard mazes. The compensation for correctly solved mazes increased as levels of difficulty increased.
The authors also collected data on the control variables of participants' ability, confidence, and risk preferences. Ability was measured by participants' performance in Part 1, confidence was measured by an incentivized belief assessment, and risk preferences were measured by an exercise in which participants decided how much money to invest or keep. In their analysis, the authors examined, first, male and female participants' willingness to pursue higher levels of difficulty in the two different conditions and, second, the earnings associated with these choices.