Women are making less money than men in the virtual world, too

How do you spell “sexism?”
How do you spell “sexism?”
Image: Reuters/Vivek Prakash
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On the auction website eBay, women are receiving on average about 80 cents for every dollar men earn when selling the same product, according to new research.

We already know that products aimed at women, such as razors and deodorant, tend to be more expensive on the high street, but this research suggests that this seemingly built-in gender inequality persists even when men and women are bidding for the same thing on eBay.

Considering eBay’s policy of not stating the gender of its users, the persistence of sexism—when buyers can identify a seller’s gender—points to greater disparities in other markets when gender is known. In more than half of the evaluations of sellers’ profiles that participants in the study were asked to conduct, the researchers found that buyers were able to identify a seller’s gender.

The research, by sociologist Tamar Kricheli-Katz and economist Tali Regev, looked at data from more than a million transactions from 2009 to 2012 involving the most popular products auctioned on eBay in the US. As well as finding that women sellers were paid less for their goods than men, the research also found that women buyers tend to pay 3% more.

An irony of these findings is that, on average, women sellers enjoy a higher reputation on the site and appear to be trusted more than men when it comes to accounting for the condition of used products. Despite this, women receive 97 cents for every dollar a man receives when selling the same used product.

This inequality was most clearly demonstrated in a complimentary experiment conducted by the researchers on Amazon Mechanical Turk, another online marketplace. Gift cards with a defined dollar value sold for more depending on whether they were offered for sale by a man or a woman. Amazon gift cards with a value of $100 sold for $83.34 when sold by “Alison” and $87.42 when sold by “Brad.”

Embedded beliefs

The fact that prices on eBay could be affected by gender seems absurd. But it comes down to the widely shared and deeply embedded beliefs that society has when it comes to men and women, which influence our behavior. We have both conscious and unconscious assumptions about gender that we internalize from an early age, which are reproduced through our social relationships and which pervade society through school and the mass media.

Gender roles are further sustained by regulatory institutions. For example, welfare models and family policies influence our sense of the proper role of women in society because they shape our sense of women’s work roles. This, in turn, influences the behavior of individuals making all sorts of decisions.

Study after study has found that people associate women and men with different traits. Time and again women are associated with qualities such as being gentle and sensitive, conveying less assertion and control than men. As a result, individuals make assumptions as to how men and women should—and will—behave, which goes towards explaining why women often end up paying more than men for identical products.

These are the same assumptions that lead bank lending officers to be less likely to lend money to female entrepreneurs—and when they do lend, to charge a higher rate of interest. The same goes for accessing government support for a business start-up.

This is not to say that women entrepreneurs are less successful than men, but that they have to work hard to counter traditional gender labels in order to instill credibility and trust in the legitimacy and economic viability of their businesses.

Undoubtedly, there is still some way to go to achieve parity. While positive initiatives geared toward leveling the playing field have been started by some big businesses and governments, a helpful institutional framework and greater awareness of the inequalities that exist is needed to bring about equality in both the market and workplace.

This post originally appeared at The Conversation. Follow @ConversationUS on Twitter.