According to new research from the University of Arizona, the key to closing the wage gap between men and women might be changing how we incentivize workers. The new study finds that women are more likely to take competitive risks at work when they are offered the opportunity to share their winnings.
The study took the form of a three-part activity. In the first round, men and women were offered two dollars for every problem solved. In the second round, four dollars were offered to the first two people to complete the problem, while the others were left with nothing. In the final round, participants could choose whether they wanted to take the low-risk option of two dollars per problem or engage in the higher risk, higher reward option. Initial results showed that 52 percent of men chose the higher risk option, compared to 34 percent of women. However, the researchers noticed a shift when they introduced a twist.
In a second iteration of the activity, they told participants that in round three, they could share their winnings with teammates if they chose the four dollar option. This twist prompted 60 percent of women to choose the more competitive option.
Additional research has shown that women are generally less competitive than men in the workplace. And while this trend has been linked to a variety of factors including anticipated discrimination, caretaking responsibilities, and societal expectations, shifting the incentives behind high level positions can help close the gap. While it doesn’t solve the issue of unequal pay for equal work, adjusting the benefits of risk-taking and competition to reflect a more collaborative environment could push more women into higher level positions.
Study co-author Mary L. Rigdon explains to The Conversation, “It’s not that women don’t like competition, but that they are sensitive to social aspects of it that men aren’t. When incentives reflect those social aspects, women are just as competitive as men.”