• Certain behaviors in childhood are contributing to the widening gender pay gap.
  • Women identified as headstrong children earn significantly less, a new study shows.
  • And men deemed dependent as children face lower pay than their peers.
  • COVID-19 has increased the global gender gap by a further generation - to 136 years.

Closing the gender pay gap may prove harder than anyone thought. A new study shows that characteristics developed in childhood may lead to some young women being paid less than men for doing a comparable job.

The World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap report found that the pay gap has been widened by the COVID-19 pandemic, extending the likely waiting time for women to achieve parity by a whole generation: from 99.5 years in 2020 to 135.6 years in 2021.

An infographic showing the gender pay gap.
The global pay gap continues to widen with significantly less women in high-paid jobs.
Image: World Economic Forum

And research by Chicago and Northwestern universities in the US suggests that girls who are described as argumentative or disobedient may be at a particular disadvantage when it comes to achieving equal pay as young women. While boys who are characterized as clingy or demanding are likely to end up being paid less than their young adult-male peers.

A young woman deemed to have been headstrong as a child will earn $2,431 a year less than a comparable man, the researchers found. This is equivalent to 40% of the average earnings gap between men and women in the US.

The gender pay gap for young men viewed as dependent in childhood - though smaller than that for headstrong women - was still significant, with earnings $1,632 below a comparable male who was seen as less dependent.

Childhood tendencies

The team used data from the Children of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) which tracked 10,000 people born in the United States in 1979. They then analyzed the early adult earnings (ages 24-30) of those who had behavioural problems during the ages of four to 12.

In the NLSY, children are described as headstrong if they argue too much, have a strong temper, are disobedient, stubborn, sullen or irritable. Dependent children are those who demand a lot of attention, cling to adults and cry too much.

The research on the gender pay gap found “large and significant earnings penalties” for women who exhibited headstrong behaviour and for men who exhibited dependent behaviour as children. But the reverse was not true. Headstrong men and dependent women suffered no pay disadvantage.

Although the team say that other childhood behavioural problems like hyperactivity, anti-social conduct and conflict with peers have been associated with lower earnings, there is no significant difference in the impact of these behaviours between the genders.

“The gender pay gap differences in headstrong and dependent behaviour are not explained by education, marriage, depression, self-esteem, health or adult personality traits,” say the researchers.

Expectations about gender behaviour from childhood could be at the root of the problem. “One potential explanation is that these gender differences are a consequence of deviations from gender norms and stereotypes in the workplace,” the economists add.

Unanswered questions on gender pay gap

The team say further research is needed to explain why some childhood behaviours influence adult gender earnings and some do not. They speculate that certain negative behaviours have less of an impact on earnings because they don’t affect adult social interactions.

Another question on the gender pay gap that needs answering, the authors say, is whether the differences in pay are just due to negative perceptions by colleagues and bosses, or whether people who displayed negative behaviours as children are actually less productive as adults.

“Women are being penalized for being headstrong relative to men, but they’re also being penalized for being headstrong relative to women who are less headstrong,” University of Chicago Professor Robert Kaestner told CNBC. “Men are being penalized for being dependent where women are not,” he added.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.