One of the puzzles of the persistent gender wage gap is why women are highly overrepresented in certain fields, like the nonprofit sector, and hugely underrepresented in other fields, like financial institutions and executive positions in major companies. One reasonable question to ask about the gap is: How much should we blame “the system” (i.e.: clubby nepotism, sexism, lack of paternity leave) and how much should we chalk this up to women’s decisions (i.e.: leaning out in their late 20s and choosing careers that pay less even when they had options to earn more)?
Peter J. Kuhn and Marie-Claire Villeval wade into this contentious field with a new study: ”Are Women More Attracted to Cooperation Than Men?” The short answer is, well, yes. The more complex answer is: Yes, because men demonstrate more overconfidence in their own abilities and distrust in their colleagues’ aptitude, except under key situations.
Numerous studies have shown that women prefer to work in teams, men prefer to work alone, and women perform worse in competitive environments, even when their performance was similar to men in noncompetitive environments. Kuhn and Villeval wanted to understand why. Although their experiment is highly theoretical, its real-world applications are clear. Women outnumber men in many helping occupations, from charitable organizations to nursing, both of which offer cooperative production with less financial reward.
Their most important conclusion involves perceptions of relative competence. Basically, if you think your colleagues are idiots, you don’t want to cast your lot with them. But if you think your colleagues are smart, you’ll see the advantages in working as a team. Women demonstrated less confidence about their own abilities, the researchers said, and more confidence in their potential partners’ abilities. They were also much more sensitive to increasing their potential partner’s incomes, reinforcing a well-established idea that women demonstrate more “inequity aversion” than men. That is, they’re less comfortable with their colleagues making dramatically different salaries.