Do children expect a gender gap in wages?

In our society, men are frequently paid more than women for doing the same job, a phenomenon known as the gender gap in wages. This phenomenon is striking for two reasons. First, both men and women show strong preferences for equality in laboratory experiments so it is surprising that such a strong pattern of inequality is allowed to persist. Second, when people are asked which gender they prefer, both men and women show preferences for women. While a great deal of work is focused on understanding the gender gap in wages in adults, we know virtually nothing about whether children also expect males and females to be compensated differently for performing the same work.

An example trial from the gender wage gap study

A recent study in our lab addressed this question. Children 4 to 9 years old participated in a short task in which they were told stories about a boy and a girl character that did a job for their teacher. They were then told that the teacher wanted to reward the characters but had an unequal number of rewards. This meant that one character would receive more than the other. Children were asked to show the experimenter which character they thought received the more desirable reward.

We found that young girls and boys expected the character with their own gender to be rewarded preferentially. However, a different pattern emerged in older children: Older girls expected the boy and girl to receive the better reward roughly half the time, whereas older boys continued to expect the male character to receive the better reward.

We dove deeper into this pattern by asking whether our findings could be explained by differences in boys’ and girls’ preferences for the characters. That is, maybe boys show a stronger preference for their own gender than do girls. However, this is not what we found. Instead, we found that both boys and girls showed a strong own-gender preference in our follow-up task.

Results from this study suggest that boys and girls have different expectations about how males and females should be rewarded. Boys expect males to be rewarded more, while girls expect equality. While this finding does not map directly onto the gender gap in wages observed in adults, it does suggest an interesting and early-emerging gender difference in how children expect others to be compensated for work.