Opportunity & Access

John Jost: Women Undervalue Themselves in Setting Pay Rates

In one startling study, women paid themselves 18% less than the men paid themselves for identical work.

August 01, 1998

| by Stanford GSB Staff


Everyone knows that on average women earn less than men for the same work. Social psychological research conducted in the 1970s and 1980s suggested that women even pay themselves less than men pay themselves. But this is the nineties, right? It seems likely that today’s women, especially young, well-educated women, would have higher self-esteem and a stronger sense of entitlement than women of 10 or 20 years ago.

John Jost, an assistant professor of organizational behavior, decided to see if women’s attitudes about their worth had changed since the advent of feminism. His research, which measures the “depressed-entitlement effect” among women, turned up worrisome results. Jost asked 132 college students—64 women and 68 men—to write an essay about computer shopping. Later in the experiment, the students were asked how much they would pay an author who produced the same composition. As a group, the women paid themselves 18 percent less than the men paid themselves for the same work. An independent panel judged the quality of the work to be equal and indistinguishable on the basis of gender. Furthermore, the women were some of America’s most elite students: Yale University undergraduates. “Women think they are worth less,” concludes Jost, who was disturbed at the strength of the result.

Jost draws on previous work by other researchers to offer possible explanations for women’s depressed sense of entitlement. First, it appears that women simply use their own past low pay scales as a standard. Second, women tend to compare their wages only to those of other women, without drawing comparisons to the wages of men. Third, women and men may hold different value systems: Some women may value material rewards less than men in general. Finally, women may simply believe that their contributions are not as great as those of men.

Jost’s study of women’s attitudes is part of a broader social theory he has been developing. Called system justification theory, it looks at how people use stereotypes and social judgments to explain and justify inequalities of status, power, and wealth. Jost’s theory represents a new voice in the study of intergroup relations, a branch of social psychology. Until now, most academic work has assumed that ethnocentrism is a behavioral norm for virtually all social groups. The group justifies itself by favoring its own members and discriminating against members of other groups. But Jost has found that groups that are low in social status don’t exhibit the classic ethnocentric biases at all. “In a variety of contexts, including gender, there’s no in-group favoritism,” he says.

Jost’s system justification theory suggests that we come to accept social status differences in society and even find ways of bolstering or rationalizing them—in part because it would be too threatening to think about all the injustices that occur. “Actually, low-status groups show out-group favoritism in my research,” says Jost. “They say that members of higher status out-groups are more hardworking, more intelligent, and better in a number of ways.” Jost has seen the same dynamic not only in his research on women but also in studies of racial and ethnic groups, and even in artificially created groups. In one study, Jost merely provided University of Maryland students with information that University of Virginia students were more socioeconomically successful. Members of the lower status group came to believe they were inferior based on the data about the achievements of the other group.

Jost’s surprise at just how much the women undervalued their own work in the Yale study was partly due to the fact that other studies showed Ivy League students hold generally positive attitudes toward feminism. That should have worked against the stereotypes that might lead women to pay themselves less. Despite the acceptance of many feminist beliefs, feelings of equality are still not strong enough among even the youngest and brightest women.

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