Thirty-three years after the Equal Rights Amendment failed ratification, American women still don’t earn the same as their male counterparts. Despite earning more college and postgraduate degrees than men, women remain a minority in higher paying positions. A 2013 Calvert Report found:
“In the S&P 100, while women make up 19% of board of director positions, they represent only 8% of the highest-paid executives.”
According to research published by the American Association of University Women,
“Women one year out of college who were working full time earned, on average, just 82 percent of what their male peers earned.”
Much research has been conducted over the years to understand and close this gap. Discrimination plays a role, as does the reality that women take on the lion’s share of unpaid child-rearing which affects their lifetime earnings power. But there may be another explanation for the wage gap that implicates a larger social issue at play.
American women could actually be culturally conditioned to avoid seeking those higher salaries. American men may have a financial advantage as a result because women appear to simply take fewer risks in search of monetary rewards. The good news is that research suggests these differences are not an inherent biological predetermination but could instead be a function of America’s patriarchal society.
In 2009, researchers Uri Gneezy, Kenneth Leonard, and John List set out to explore whether men inherently behave more competitively than women. To do this, they conducted controlled experiments in two apparent polar opposite societies — the Maasai in Tanzania and the Khasi in India.
The Maasai are an extremely patriarchal society, one in which women are treated as subhuman. When a Maasai man is asked how many children he has, he will only count his sons. Women of the Maasai tribe feel the livestock hold higher social standing than they do.
Four thousand miles away, the Khasi tribes of Northeast India are a matrilineal society in which the women enjoy high social stature while the men are largely considered the weaker sex.
By conducting an experiment on risk aversion in these two cultures, the researchers report that they aimed:
“To provide some insights into the underpinnings of the observed differences in competitiveness across men and women.”
To accomplish this, members of each community were asked to participate in a game that studied their thirst for risk and reward. Players were asked to throw balls toward a bucket for which they would be given one unit of currency for every ball that landed inside. Participants were paired with another anonymous player who was hidden from their view on the other side of a dividing wall. Players could either choose to make the throws alone and take one unit of currency for each successful throw, or they could instead choose to earn three times the amount if they scored higher than their invisible opponent.
Researchers found that the men of the patriarchal Maasai culture were twice as likely to choose the latter, riskier option in pursuit of the higher reward as the Maasai women.
In the matrilineal Khasi society, the results were the exact opposite. Khasi women were significantly more likely to compete for the bigger prize than were the Khasi men. In fact, Khasi women took the gamble even slightly more often than the men in the extremely patriarchal Maasai culture. The Khasi women were simply more competitive.
While the study authors admit more research is necessary to fully explain this phenomenon, they conclude:
“It is not universally true that the average female in every society avoids competition more often than the average male in that society because we have discovered at least one setting in which this is not true.”
Certainly America has made huge strides toward equality since the Women’s Liberation Movement, but based on the disparity still seen in positions of power, we are a deeply patriarchal culture. If a patriarchal society causes men to behave more competitively, and a matrilineal culture does the same for women, this may explain why American women are overall found to be less competitive and more risk averse than their male counterparts. This risk aversion often translates into lower earnings for even the smartest and most capable female workers.
The wage gap is a problem with many causes, but if socially-programed risk aversion is one of them, this is yet another reason we’re not closing this gap. Americans men and women need to achieve social equality in order to heal financial inequality.
Originally posted on Gina’s Website, The Feminist Breeder
Gina Crosley-Corcoran, author and advocate behind TheFeministBreeder.com, is a certified childbirth educator, certified doula, and Master of Public Health candidate. She lives in Chicagoland with her husband and three small children.