Researchers have found that personality is a greater cause of the pay gap than gender. Pete Nicholls explains what type of personality you need to earn big.
There is a gender pay gap, but it’s not quite the result of what you might think. On average, women as a discrete demographic earn less than men. The amount of difference may vary slightly from one jurisdiction to another but the general pattern is indeed there. That variance may, in time, come to expose something about how we are brought up (therefore how we advantage/disadvantage each gender) but that’s for another piece of research.
If we break this difference down by specific job, there is no difference. So whats going on?
Preference theory suggests that we choose our roles and that this alone accounts for our resulting pay, and since men and women tend toward choosing differing roles (when looked at en masse), this then accounts for the difference we see in pay between the genders. Its seems this is not the full story.
Men and women get paid the same per hour when they do the same job
The theory assumes that what people get paid per hour/day/week is the same for the same job regardless of gender; and certainly this is what employment and equality legislation across the developed world ensures.
The theory suggests there is something about women that causes them to end up in these lower paid jobs, and I would agree. So far the debate has been one of arguing between free choice and ability. Conventional wisdom suggests choice; hence preference theory.
Some advocating gender discrimination would instead suggest ‘lack of choice’ being the issue, but the facts simply do not back this on any scale outside of individual cases. For the differences that we see to be fully explained we need to look at a wider as yet unseen systemic cause.
However, in the meantime, to address this perceived discrimination / lack of choice, we have seen a move towards encouraging women into roles traditionally dominated by men. Examples might include moves to increase numbers of women in engineering, science and senior leadership. Arguably it’s not been particularly successful because the numbers are yet to see wide scale female representation and on the same scale as men. Put another way, the pursuit of policy to ensure women get into traditionally male roles does not seem to have resulted in women doing well in those roles when compared to their male counterparts. There are of course many exceptions but we are looking at general trends here.
Are we then being told the full story about the gender pay gap?
Is job choice (or lack of choice) the real factor here? Does it explain what we empirically observe? The evidence suggests its only one part of the driver, and a relatively minor one at that.
A number of researchers across the developed world have over the past few decades concluded that another critical force is actually at play. Personality.
Personality is typically measured by psychologists via a set of metrics commonly known as the ‘Big Five’; namely:
(1) inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious
(2) efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless
(3) outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved
(4) friendly/compassionate vs. analytical/detached
(5) sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident
Each of us tends to sit somewhere on the scale described above for these five traits. These traits make us who we are and importantly what we are suited to and good at.
If you want to earn more, stop being so agreeable
A number of studies now suggest quite strongly that number (4) also known as the measure of agreeableness, and number (5) also known as the measure of neuroticism, are the greatest singular predictors of ultimate income. Put another way, the more agreeable and neurotic we are as individuals, the less we tend to earn.
Being agreeable and emotionally sensitive might result in more friends but it’s unlikely to land us in a highly paid job or one that requires such behavioural traits.
Therefore, being disagreeable (‘pushing the boundaries’) and combining it with being even tempered (‘emotionally stable’) seems the best all round predictive factor for income, taking into account every other known factor, including gender.
On self reported scales, men tended to rate more highly on disagreeability and lower on neuroticism, women the direct opposite. This is in turn supported by a number of related studies looking at personality traits by gender.
High earning women are disagreeable too!
Where these gender differences are inconsistent with expectation of the individual (due to their gender), then the male and female earning differences evaporate. i.e. It is not gender that drives income but rather personality.
Look around you, at the place in which you work; would you be surprised by this? Successful people exhibit certain common personality traits regardless of their gender.
The fact is, specific personality norms are predominant in people based on one demographic above all others – their gender. That much is established fact. It may not however be so clear to what extent such traits are the result of nurture versus nature but I would lean towards a significant influence being nurture.
Meaning, how we bring up our children, who they mix with as they grow up and the social norms they are exposed to, has significant impact on how they end up acting and therefore their future earning potential and likelihood of success. Which is why I mentioned above that looking at how different parts of the world bring up children (therefore priming their earning ability) might be quite insightful but that’s for another time.
Here’s the simplified rule that emerges from a cross reference of several studies:
- Pushy and even tempered = higher earning potential.
- Any other combination of the above two factors = lower earning potential.
Regardless of gender, if we want our children to grow up and get on, to be successful and to earn a relatively higher salary, we will need to ensure they are taught to question constructively and to do so in an emotionally stable manner.
Psychologically, given that such ‘success’ related behaviors are diametrically opposite to those typically exhibited by ‘victim’ mentalities, one might draw obvious conclusions from efforts to address the gender pay gap through a lens of active discrimination. If researchers are right about success factors then logically, efforts to address gender pay gap through actively impacting perceived discrimination is the least likely strategy to achieve a positive outcome. i.e. Programming someone to think like a victim makes them far less likely to succeed.
Bottom line, businesses are there to succeed. That is their purpose beyond the colourful rhetoric they may otherwise espouse. Put simply, employers that are not up to the job will – and do – go out of business and it is wider society (that business’s customer base) that decides if it lives or dies. There is no conspiracy based on gender as far as customers are concerned, particularly when half the customer base generally happens to be female. The fact is, people with certain traits succeed, others do not.
Maybe its time we focused our energies where they mattered most and not on bogeymen originating out of political ideologies that necessarily rely on support that stems from creating victims.
Deep down, we all know people that are successful and we have a view on their personalities. That personality came from somewhere and certainly we can start by helping the next generation of girls and boys to develop the optimal behaviors to help them succeed in life, work and otherwise. Anything less will do women (and sensitive agreeable men!) a disservice that no amount of gender quota correction will ever address. The business’s customer base will make damn sure of that.
Pete’s recommended reading list:
- Assertiveness and competition Hofstede, 1980
- Discrimination Auster, 1989; Blau & Ferber, 1986
- Career choices Jackson & Grabski, 1988
- 6 Facets of agreeableness Costa and McCrae’s 1992
- Interpersonal dimension of job performance Hurtz & Donovan, 2000
- Agreeable less likely to enact voice behaviors constructively challenging existing practice LePine & van Dyne, 2001
- Agreeableness and friendship Graziano & Tobin, 2002
- Social role and congruity Eagly, 1987; Eagly & Karau, 2002
- Advocating for position during conflict van de Vliert & Euwema, 2004
- High sense of psychological entitlement Campbell Bonacci, Shelton, Exline, & Bushman, 2004
- Disagreeableness and favorable settlements in distributive negotiations Barry & Friedman, 1998; Liu, Friedman, & Chi, 2005
- Power of nice Thaler & Koval, 2006
- Kindness revolution Horrell, 2006
- Disagreeableness and psychopathy Derefinko & Lynam, 2006
- Agreeability adheres excessively to social norms Paulhus & Trapnell, 2008
- Trait manifestation in behaviour Fleeson & Gallagher, 2009
- Agreeableness does not equate to success Ng et al., 2005; Mueller & Plug, 2006; Nyhus & Pons, 2005; Rode et al., 2008; Spurk & Abele, 2010
- Disagreeableness Balch & Armstrong, 2010
- Study of human capital Weinberger & Kuhn, 2010
- Do nice guys–and gals–really finish last? Judge, Hurst, Livingston, 2012