Gender bias is everywhere. The latest observation of its pervasiveness: Women receive less money than men when they auction goods on eBay—even if they’re selling exactly the same item, and even if their gender isn’t explicitly disclosed, but simply inferred from clues like usernames.
A study published Friday in Science Advances by Israel-based researchers Tamar Kricheli-Katz and Tali Regev found that, when selling an identical new product, women received fewer bids than men and received 80 cents for every dollar men took home.
For Regev, the findings reveal more of the inherent biases against women in the marketplace. She pointed out that the wage gap between men and women is well-documented but excuses still proliferate, such as that women might prefer different careers, or be less committed, or are simply not suited to certain (higher-paid) jobs.
“When we look at product markets and a woman and a man are selling the exact same product and they have the same reputation—because this is what we compared—then there’s no real reason why this iPod shuffle sold by Alison should have a different price to one sold by Brad,” she said. “The difference is striking.”
Why are women offered less money than men? Regev put it down to ingrained and unconscious social biases that affect both men and women as buyers.
In their study, the researchers looked at the most popular products sold on eBay from 2009 to 2012. When they compared auction outcomes, they controlled criteria that could give an advantage other than gender. “For example, we compared the number of bids and the final price received by women and men who have the same reputation, experience, number of pictures in the ad, etc., in an auction for a new ‘Bulova 18K Gold 95G07 Wrist Watch for Women,’” they write.
The overall comparison was a 20 percent reduction for women sellers of new products, with variation across different categories of goods. However, when it came to used goods, women received a much higher 97 cents on the dollar—the authors speculate this could be because buyers trust women’s descriptions of the condition of the goods more.
Why are women offered less money than men? Regev put it down to ingrained and unconscious social biases that affect both men and women as buyers. “It comes from a range of social perceptions and stereotypes... ideas such as women’s place, that women perhaps shouldn’t be in the market, that women have lower status, that women are of lesser value than men,” she said. “All these things—all these unconscious feelings—come in and make you want to offer less.”
Regev explained that eBay was an ideal subject for study because it works on the simple premise of the highest bid wins, without the buyer and seller interacting (so gender differences can’t be put down to a difference in negotiating prowess). The researchers even looked at sentiment analysis in the eBay listings, to make sure price differences weren’t due to, say, women presenting their products less positively than men.
The researchers asked participants how much they would be willing to pay for a $100 Amazon gift card sold by either “Alison” or “Brad.” Alison’s was valued at an average of $83.34 and Brad’s at $87.42.
What’s interesting is that, despite such a clear gender gap in the study’s findings, sellers’ genders aren’t even explicitly shown on eBay. But the researchers showed it’s possible to tell their gender in any case from cues such as usernames or the other items sellers are offering (for example, men’s or women’s clothing). Through an experiment on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, they found that people could correctly tell a seller’s gender in 1,127 cases out of 2,000, and only got it incorrect in 170 cases.
To hammer the point home, the researchers ran another experiment on Mechanical Turk, this time asking participants how much they would be willing to pay for a $100 Amazon gift card sold by either “Alison” or “Brad.” Alison’s was valued at an average of $83.34 and Brad’s at $87.42. This follows previous research that has found simply changing the name on a job application from female to male results in more job offers and higher salary valuations, suggesting again that the same kind of biases at play in the product market are also reflected in the job market.
Based on this study, women might want to pose as men when selling goods online—though Regev pointed out that by that logic, buyers could also be tempted to buy from women in search of a better deal. The real solution is to address the underlying forces that give rise to these biases—though there’s no quick fix to changing a mindset that’s been entrenched for generations.
Regev thinks there is a role for policy changes in enabling greater representation for currently underrepresented groups in society.
“If we want to change it that’s a big thing—how do we change stereotypes?” said Regev. “You change stereotypes when reality changes, because stereotypes are many times rooted in reality, and they create reality.”
XX is a column about occurrences in the world of tech, science, and the internet that have to do with women. It covers the good, the bad, and the otherwise interesting developments in the Motherboard world.