Study of 8000 workers finds that gender differences in “achievement motivation” may explain part of the gender pay gap

GettyImages-925713268.jpgBy Alex Fradera

In the UK, this has been a year of action on the gender pay gap (the, on average, lower pay for women compared with men), with cross-party MPs launching campaigns like #PayMeToo and the government taking steps to investigate and hold organisations to account on the issue. This has also attracted pushback from those that argue that the gender difference in average pay has many causes, including the different interests of, and life choices taken by, men and women. Now a study published in Oxford Economic Papers has examined another complicating factor, namely whether the gender pay gap is influenced partly by an on-average difference between the genders in a trait not previously taken into account – the motivation to achieve.

Leonora Risse and her team from Melbourne’s RMIT University drew on one year’s data from an Australian household survey of about 8,000 people employed full- or part-time. These workers provided information about their jobs, pay and social background, as well as completing a number of personality measures.

Risse’s team first analysed the pay data and found the usual gender gap suggesting women earned AUS $26 dollars an hour, on average, compared with $32.50 an hour for men – a difference of nearly 20 per cent. 

Next, the researchers looked into whether gender-linked personality differences could account for any of this difference, while holding other influences constant.

The classic connections drawn between personality and income are around two of the “Big Five” traits: people higher in conscientiousness – those who pay attention to quality and deadlines and work at a high pace – generally earn more, on average; as do people lower on agreeableness (suggesting there is an advantage for those more able and willing to make unlikeable decisions or put themselves before others). 

As is typically seen when comparing the genders, women in this dataset were more agreeable, on average, and this appeared to adversely impact their pay. However they were also more conscientious, which offset things and meant that the net effect of gender differences in these Big Five traits was in explaining just nine cents of the gender pay gap.

But Risse’s team had their eye on another culprit: potential gender differences in a trait called “achievement motivation”, which is made up of the two sub-traits “fear of failure” and “hope for success”. People more motivated by a fear of failure act based on negative emotionality and women typically score higher on this than men. Although fear of failure can propel people to get things done, it isn’t very effective at motivating them to take on new risks or seek opportunities, as this introduces further domains for failure. In contrast with this, the sub-trait “hope for success” drives people towards opportunities with the expectation they will turn out well – and men typically score higher on this trait than women. 

Risse and her colleagues predicted gender differences in achievement motivation and its sub-traits would prove important for pay, as a jump forward in earnings often involves taking a risk – asking for a raise, taking a difficult assignment or switching roles or businesses. If men do these things more often – and are more confident when they do so – this could be a component of the gender pay gap.

As expected, in this dataset, women agreed more strongly with “fear of failure” items like “I am afraid of tasks that I cannot work out or solve”, while men agreed more strongly with “hope for success” items such as “I like situations where I can find out how capable I am”. Moreover, average gender differences in these traits contributed to the gender pay gap in the expected manner, together having twice the impact of the Big Five traits, at about 22 cents.

Sharp minds will notice that this means gender differences in the psychological measures accounted for 31 cents, which is only five per cent of the gender pay gap. Gender differences in workplace factors (e.g. the industries that men and women tend to work in, and whether in the private or public sector) made a far larger contribution to the pay gap (around 80 cents). In turn, workplace factors were overshadowed by average gender differences in age and experience – older people with more experience tend to earn more, and in this dataset, more men than women matched this description (accounting for two dollars of the gender pay gap). Average gender differences in skills had a still bigger impact: over $2.50 of the gap. 

So, the purely psychological measures turned out to be a bit player in this particular show. But drawing strong conclusions from this fact is difficult. One claim could be that social forces matter more than psychology: men are older in the workforce because of historical barriers to entry and because women who have children face more obstacles in returning to the workforce; skill differences reflect differential access to opportunities; and well-paying industries are not welcoming to women. But while there is considerable force to these social explanations, to view them as fully explaining the gender differences in occupational outcomes is likely to be ignoring other psychological features which weren’t measured in this study. Notably, the well-established gender differences in occupational interests, which while not deterministic, remain an important driver of what choices people make around work, and the differences in how men and women construe the trade off between pay and free time.

This study wasn’t trying to provide us with all the answers. What it does show is clear: that, in aggregate, confidence in success and less fear of failure have real effects on wages, and that this may be relevant to the gender pay gap. One might expect that in certain roles and situations, gender differences in confidence could matter even more. 

Based on their findings, Risse and her team suggest it may help reduce the gender pay gap for some women to undertake motivational and confidence training (although, as they note, personality is not infinitely malleable). The researchers also question whether there is a case for changing organisational cultures – is it necessarily a good thing for a Yes I Can mindset to so often be the one making it to the top? After all, sometimes that attitude can lead an organisation, or a whole industry, off a cliff.

Personality and pay: do gender gaps in confidence explain gender gaps in wages?

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

7 thoughts on “Study of 8000 workers finds that gender differences in “achievement motivation” may explain part of the gender pay gap”

  1. Thank you, Alex, for so clearly reporting effect sizes in their real world units here;

    It’s really great to see that more in psychology (etc.) reporting and the BPS Digest seems an ideal place to promote the practice.

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  2. Don’t know what to say man, is nothing more risky from what a woman does accepting a man’s advances, and than doing allmost all of the reproductive work by her self for free in many capitalist societies

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  3. There is one thing a good majority of men are biologically prone to and very few women are. Psychopathy. The type of success in any business world, including politics and religion, is to have those in the top positions to possess not only a high-functioning mind, but also NOT possess empathy/altruism, compassion or a conscience. This is why the majority of the military is men. The majority of religion and politics, men. Corporation’s, CEO’s especially, majority men. Very few women can make and live with the unscrupulous and immoral decisions necessary to make profit. It is why people who possess strong altruism, empathy, compassion and a conscience will never climb up to the top rungs. Those who’ve tried end up getting eaten alive and bailing. Women will never be equal to men in the psychopathy department where they will account for at least half the force. Frankly, I’m not sure why they’d prefer money and power over having a soul and human(e) traits. Those with them, male or female, who thought the military was a good career choice ended up with PTSD as their consciences basically exploded in their heads. No, the real deal is needed for the deeds of profit and very few once humane things are all about profit. Hard pressed to find any humans among corporate health agencies and hospitals and all their shareholders.

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  4. In my experience – and therefore purely anecdotal – many women subjugate their career interests in order to promote those of their partner. This may reflect achievement motivation, but may also be a very sensible approach to a situation where men may still need to feel more successful professionally.

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