The hidden secrets of the gender gap

By James Whitmore

Behavioural economist Dr Maria Recalde uses experimental methods to investigate the oftentimes hidden factors that contribute to gender gaps in the workforce. Here she discusses what drives her to do her research.

In 2013 Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg published her best-selling book Lean In, a guide for women to advance their careers. Women could get ahead, Sandberg argued, by essentially behaving more like stereotypical men.

The book argues that “it's all about grabbing a seat in the table, not being so insecure, and raising your voice,” says Dr Maria Recalde, Lecturer  in the Economics Department.

But there’s another, less discussed factor that contributes to gender inequality at work: the tasks that are important in offices, but don’t help the person who performs them move up the career ladder. Note-taking in meetings, for example. Unpacking the office dishwasher. Planning the office Christmas party. Tasks that fall disproportionately to women.

“There’s this shared belief in many workplaces that women will perform these tasks,” says Dr Recalde.

Dr Recalde studies this phenomenon alongside a team of international researchers.

In 2018, she was awarded a Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) through the Australian Research Council. The grant is allowing her to look at how and when this task performance gap emerges between men and women, and to what extent it is driven by gender norms in society.

It’s about more than equality and fairness, she says.

“There's an efficiency argument. In the sense that if you're taxing somebody, if you're taking their time, and having them do types of tasks that actually won't allow them to acquire the skills, or the portfolio to move up the ladder, you're never going to recognize that talent.”

Becoming an economist

Dr Recalde grew up in Ecuador, and then won a college scholarship to study in the US.

In Ecuador, she didn’t know any economists with a PhD.  There was no single lightbulb moment for Dr Recalde, more a growing awareness that economics was something she was interested in as she became exposed to the field at University.

“I think it was the classes that drew me to economics. I've always been into numbers – solving problems and finding solutions.”

She credits particularly the instructor of a graduate level experimental class, where Dr Recalde was one of only two women, which motivated her to specialize in the field of experimental and behavioural economics . The Professor went on to become her advisor.

“I was quiet, but she kept giving me feedback and encouraging me to speak up and improve.”

Throughout her research career she’s been driven by a desire “to shed light on what we can do as individuals and society to help make the world a better place”.

Global experience

Dr Recalde’s work extends beyond Western workplaces – she has undertaken development research designed to improve economic conditions in developing countries. She says women face greater challenges and inequities in the developing world.

“There are many places around the world where women do not have freedom of movement, or where they do not have the same rights and opportunities as men. These are things we take for granted here in Australia and in many developed countries. Even when the law guarantees equal rights and opportunities, social norms may be such that gender disparities exist and are perpetuated at home and across generations.”

Dr Recalde was hired as a research assistant for her first field project in Bolivia, which she says was an eye-opening experience.

“When I did that work, I realized there's a gap between what I did in the lab at University and what people did in the field of development economics. And there was very little conversation between the two fields.”

This project led Dr Recalde to more work in the developing world, including a stint with a Washington-based research centre, the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Aside from her research, Dr Recalde says she is most proud of her teaching.

“If you can have a positive impact on somebody's future or their choices, what they want to do, I think that's the most rewarding part of the job. You have the opportunity to hopefully help them to learn and then see what it is that they want to do in the future.”

Banner image: Maria Recalde in Samaipata, Bolivia.