Competitiveness is an individual trait that has been shown to be highly predictive of career choices and labor market outcomes and for which a strong gender gap is often found. Gender differences in preferences for competition might therefore provide a partial explanation for gender disparities in career choices, such as differential selection into STEM fields or finance.
A new study by Teodora Boneva, Thomas Buser, Armin Falk and Fabian Kosse provides causal evidence on the impact of socioeconomic background at a young age on preferences for competition and gender differences in these preferences. The analysis is based on the briq family panel, consisting of families living in the German cities of Bonn and Cologne with children born between 2002 and 2004.
To isolate results on the effects of a change to the social environment, around 30 percent of the children in the sample were randomly assigned to a well-established and intensive mentoring program called “Baloo and You”. For a period of about one year, children are provided with a mentor whose brief it is to act as a role model and to enrich the social environment. Volunteer mentors are predominantly university students, and all girls are assigned to a female mentor, thereby exposing girls of low socioeconomic status (SES) to a successful female role model.
Mother’s competitiveness matters for girls
A first finding indicating a potential positive effect of the mentoring program is that the mother’s competitiveness has a positive effect on girls but not on boys. Thus, female role models might be particularly important for shaping girl’s competitiveness.
The broader results confirm earlier findings of significant differences in competitiveness between girls and boys, however the gender gap registered for adolescents with low socioeconomic background stands out. Socioeconomically disadvantaged girls are 4.5 times more likely to be found at the bottom of the competitiveness distribution than boys with comparable SES. On the other hand, girls profiting from a more favorable background (high SES) are “only” twice as likely to show very low competitiveness in comparison to boys with high SES.
The mentoring intervention significantly narrows the gender difference in competitiveness by increasing girls’ willingness to compete especially among those most averse to competition. The gap between the gender differences in competitiveness of the disadvantaged and the advantaged group is closed entirely.
Mentees raise their earnings expectations
A similar pattern emerges for earnings expectations. About six years after the intervention the authors administered a questionnaire in which they elicit the adolescents believe about their earnings at age 30. While the teenagers in this sample have not entered the labor market yet, data shows that there are already large gender gaps regarding expected earnings at this age, especially among the group of low SES adolescents.
Girls with poor socioeconomic background expect 36.7% lower earnings than boys exposed to a similar social environment. The gender gap in the group with high SES is only 8.8%. The intervention reduced the gender gap in the low SES group by 23.3 percentage points to 13.4%, which is statistically indistinguishable from the gender gap in the high SES group.
Taken together, the results suggest that girls with low socioeconomic status are doubly disadvantaged, by both their socioeconomic background and their gender, but that interventions can partially mitigate this disadvantage. The results have important policy implications: Providing adolescents with an enriched social environment may not only result in better outcomes for disadvantaged children but may also lead to a significant reduction in gender inequality.