Expert Commentary

Gender dynamics, competitive job listings and applicant decisions: A natural field experiment

2014 study in The Review of Economic Studies showing how job incentives and specifications can discourage women to apply for jobs.

How to increase the number of women in the corporate ranks and create more equitable workplaces has become a much-discussed policy question. Some countries have introduced quotas for women on corporate boards to establish a more equitable gender distribution at the top of corporations. The hope was that such quotas would create a trickle-down effect that would benefit the corporations as well as women on all steps of the corporate ladder. A recent empirical assessment of quota policies in Norway shows mixed results, however, with no evidence of a trickle-down effect.

To better understand gender inequities in the job market and the factors that influence them, a growing body of research has been focusing on women’s and men’s behavior in competitive environments. Many of these studies base their conclusions on observations made in lab experiments. One example is a 2012 paper by Olga Shurchkov of Wellesley College; it found that gender-task stereotypes affect women’s propensity to compete.

A 2014 study, “Do Competitive Workplaces Deter Female Workers? A Large-Scale Natural Field Experiment on Job Entry Decisions,” by Jeffrey Flory of Claremont McKenna College, Andreas Leibbrandt of Monash University and John List of Monash/University of Chicago, contributes to the growing body of research in this area. The study, published in the Review of Economic Studies, is the first to use a large-scale natural-field experiment to understand the influence of competition on women’s job-entry decisions.

The method the scholars used involved posting ads for “administration/office” positions in a variety of U.S. cities. The ads were published in two versions, one neutral and another with sports connotations, perceived to be “masculine.” After potential applicants expressed interest, “job-seekers were randomly assigned into treatments offering fixed-wage compensation, compensation depending mildly on individual relative performance, compensation depending heavily on individual relative performance, team relative performance, or on elements of uncertainty. Thereafter, each job seeker decided whether to apply formally for the position.” About 9,000 people in total applied across two related experiments.

The key findings include:

  • Certain workplace characteristics have a significant effect on the gender gap among applicants: “(i) the degree to which compensation depends on relative performance, (ii) whether the job is team based, and (iii) minor changes in the job task.” The gendered nature of the job description also had an effect.
  • A gender-neutral ad for the administrative-assistant position attracted 80.3% female candidates. The version that adds a “masculine” flavor shifted the male-female balance to roughly equal — only 53.5% women.
  • For more competitive jobs that base compensation on relative performance, “women’s propensity to apply substantially drops relative to that of men.” The scholars conclude that “competitive workplaces can significantly increase the gender gap in application probabilities.”
  • This gap between men and women is “not driven by men being attracted to a competitive work environment and women shunning it, but rather by a significantly stronger aversion to competitive workplaces among women compared to men.”
  • While the gender of coworkers, competitors and supervisors in competitive workplaces has no significant effect on the gender gap, team-based work positively affected women’s decision to apply.
  • In the experiment the scholars found that the nature of the work mattered for women to decide to apply: “Even a marginal adjustment of the job task can be sufficient to induce or eliminate large gender differentials in job applications caused by competition-incentives.” In particular, “descriptive framing of the jobs and their potential gender associations may play a key role in the ultimate sorting of workers.”
  • Competition and uncertainty are both strong workplace deterrents for women. “Large wage uncertainty has almost the same effect on the gender gap in application rates as the high-stakes relative performance scheme.”
  • Both competition and wage uncertainty had equal effects on the gender gap: “The gender gap in high-stakes competition jobs is roughly the same as that caused by high wage uncertainty. This suggests that preferences over uncertainty can be just as important as preferences over competition in affecting job-entry choices and gender imbalances.”

In conclusion, the scholars state: “We show that, in the field, even a marginal adjustment of the job-task can be sufficient to induce or eliminate large gender differentials in job applications caused by competition-incentives…. In field settings, when economic agents are faced with choices regarding job-selection, the nature of the work matters. Therefore, descriptive framing of the jobs and their potential gender associations may play a key role in the ultimate sorting of workers.”

Related research: A 2014 study published in the American Sociological Review finds that “overwork” — logging longer hours — tends to perpetuate certain gender imbalances in terms of compensation, also known as the “pay gap.” There is also a growing research literature on how competitive workplaces frequently have structural problems, or “glass cliffs,” that make it more likely women in leadership roles will leave.


Keywords: women and work, gender imbalance

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