Two women in red clothing.
Enlarge / Women in traditional Mosuo clothing.

In most societies, there are very easy to quantify differences between men and women. Women tend to live longer but earn less, for example. Historically, there has been a strong tendency to ascribe those differences to biology. But most societies treat women very differently, making disentangling biological and societal factors a challenge. This week, a couple of papers apply some interesting approaches to teasing the two apart.

In one, researchers looked at a matrilineal society in China to explore gender norms’ impact on health. In the second, a detailed survey explored how internalized expectations can influence engineering career success in the US.

A healthier society

The work on China focused on women’s health. Since women outlive men, you might expect that they’re generally healthy. You’d be wrong; women tend to have a higher disease burden than men do. To get a hint as to why that might be the case, the researchers looked at an ethnic group called the Mosuo, who occupy an area near Tibet, on the border between Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. Some members of the Mosuo society have adopted patriarchal practices, with males as the head of the household. But others have women as the head of household, while their husbands continue to live with the families they grew up in. Children are raised by their mothers and remain part of her household.

This situation allowed the researchers to perform a simple experiment, checking for signs of chronic disease in the matrilineal and patrilineal households. They focused on signs of inflammation and hypertension, two disorders with significant health impacts that are known to be influenced by social factors.

In communities that followed patrilineal practices, chronic inflammation was over twice as prevalent in women (8.3 percent vs. 3.2 percent). Thirty-three percent of women were hypertensive, compared to 26 percent of men. Testing in a matrilineal community changed the situation dramatically. There, chronic inflammation hit 6.4 percent of men but only 3.6 percent of women. Similar outcomes were seen with hypertension, which struck 28 percent of men but only 26 percent of women. The researchers note that the stats for men are largely unchanged, which they ascribe to the high levels of social support they get from living in the household they grew up in.

Overall, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that, as the authors put it, “health is shaped extensively by social and cultural factors, including gender norms that impact autonomy, resource control, and social support.” Being head of household might come with some stresses, but they’re more than offset by having control over the household resources.

Engineering confidence

A second group of researchers decided to look at engineers in the US. For a period of three years, they tracked people coming out of engineering and computer science programs at 27 different universities, obtaining data on 559 students. Among other things, the survey participants reported their grades, starting salaries, and what field they ended up working in. But they also took a short survey that gauged what the authors term their “engineering self-efficacy,” in which they were asked about their confidence in their ability to perform tasks like constructing prototype products, building mathematical models, and so on.

As is typical in these fields, the researchers found that the women who graduated from engineering programs received lower pay on average, with the gap being nearly $5,000 a year. And after taking factors like GPA and university into account, the gap shrank slightly but still persisted.

But once people’s confidence in their own skills was used to adjust the outcome, the wage gap shrank to insignificance. In other words, the factor that seemed to account for the gender-specific wage gap best was the graduates’ confidence in their abilities as engineers. Put differently, female engineers are more likely to underrate their likely skills relative to what their school and GPA might suggest, and that lower confidence seems to cost them when it comes to pay.

Just to be sure, however, the researchers looked at two other explanations that have been offered for women’s lower pay. One is the suggestion that money doesn’t matter as much to women, but in this sample, there was no gender difference in the importance attached to salary. Another explanation that has been suggested is that women prioritize a healthier workplace culture over salary. This turned out to be true, but for both men and women, placing a high value on workplace culture was associated with higher salaries.

The fact that confidence is a major factor that separates men and women shouldn’t be surprising. As the researchers note, “Prior work indicates that girls and women have lower confidence in their math and science ability than boys and men, net of actual ability in these subjects.” And boys have shown themselves willing to say they’ve mastered fake math concepts as an outgrowth of that overconfidence. But if we want more women going into STEM careers and staying there, then we have to think about how to account for the gender gap in misplaced confidence.

More generally, the two reports drive home the huge effects that social factors can play in gender difference that have often been ascribed to innate, biological factors. That doesn’t mean we know how to compensate for these factors, but it’s a key first step toward realizing that there’s something there that can be fixed.

PNAS, 2020. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2014403117, 10.1073/pnas.2010269117  (About DOIs).