The Effect of Task Choice and Task Assignment on the Gender Wage Gap: An Experimental Study

In an experimental study in the U.S., when women are assigned a harder, higher-paid task, they experience an increase in earnings, regardless of whether they stated a preference for an easier or more challenging task. 


The gender wage gap, or the difference in earnings between men and women, has been documented across occupations. Some of the factors that widen this gap are: discrimination that women generally face in the labor market; women’s aversion to risk; differences in their willingness to engage in competition; and self-perception of performance. 

Prior research has revealed gender differences affect how individuals choose between easier and harder tasks, which may contribute to widening the gender wage gap. Studies suggest that women are less likely to self-select into harder, higher-paid jobs.

In this study, the authors examine, whether and how having men and women work on jobs that they would not have chosen in the first place results in a positive effect on reducing the gender earnings gap. The authors examine whether the relative difficulty of tasks that men and women choose affect their earnings. The study also investigates if women’s potential for higher earnings can be driven by the types of job-related tasks they choose – particularly those typically chosen by men.


Men who selected the harder, higher-paid task were more likely to receive higher earnings regardless of the task they were assigned, while women received higher earnings when they worked on a harder, higher-paid task even if they initially selected an easier, lower-paid one. Tasks featured math and verbal problems of two levels of difficulty for participants to solve. 

Task Choice Effect

  • Male participants’ earnings were correlated with their initial task selection, with men who selected the hard task performing better and earning more on average than those who selected the easy task.
  • Female participants' earnings were not correlated with their initial task selection, with women who initially selected the easy task and those who initially selected the hard task performing and earning the same when assigned to the same task. 

Task Assignment Effect

  • Male participants who initially selected the hard task did not differ significantly in earnings whether they were assigned to the easy or hard task. Those who initially selected the easy task, however, did have lower earnings when assigned the hard task, although the earnings’ differences were only significant for the math tasks and not statistically distinguishable in the verbal tasks.
  •   Female participants had higher earnings when assigned to the hard task, regardless of whether they initially selected the easy or hard task, which held true for both the verbal and math tasks. 

Gender Effect

  • Male and female participants assigned to the task they initially selected earned the same amount, in the cases of both the verbal and math tasks. 
  • Male participants were more likely to choose the harder, higher-paid tasks than female participants, even if there were no gender differences in performance. In the math task, 57% of men chose the hard task while 49% of women chose the hard task, while in the verbal task, 56% of men chose the hard task while 36% of women chose the hard task.
  • Women may be more adaptive to a new task environment than men when they work on their non-preferred task. Women were more likely to exhibit stronger learning effects (78% ) compared to men (64%) and received significantly higher earnings on their non-preferential task.

These findings suggest that policies encouraging female employees to take on more challenging and rewarding tasks could increase their earnings and lessen the gender wage gap. Significantly, they also suggest implementing gender quota policies (such as Affirmative Action) by reserving opportunities for competent women may improve the earnings of women. They also indicate that efforts to address the gender wage gap should account for gender differences in contributing dynamics, such as job selection and earnings outcomes. Future research can focus on field experiments to replicate these laboratory findings among a student population.


A total of 508 undergraduate students at the Experimental Social Science Laboratory at Florida State University were recruited to participate, with average earnings amounting to $17 for Experiment I and $11 for Experiment II. Participants were given sample questions and detailed instructions for two types of tasks they could undertake and allocated five minutes to solve each type of sample question. 

In Experiment I, tasks involved a number addition game, and in Experiment II, tasks involved a word puzzle. In both experiments, there were two task levels, representing different degrees of difficulty and payment. Next, participants were provided information on the piece rate for each task, informed they might not receive their preferred task, and asked to select a type of task to perform. Participants were randomly assigned to a task type and asked to solve as many questions as possible within ten minutes. Participants completed a post-treatment survey including demographic information and risk and competition preferences.

The authors' analysis focused on three effects: 1) Task Choice Effect, centered on a comparison of the earnings of women and men who selected different tasks but were assigned the same task, 2) Task Assignment Effect, centered on a comparison of the earnings of women and men who chose the same task but were assigned different tasks, and 3) Gender Effect, centered on a comparison of the earnings of women and men who chose and were assigned the same task.

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