We're all aware of the stubborn statistic: Women are paid, on average, 79 cents for every dollar earned by a man. But given all the variables involved, it's hard to know how much of this gap can be attributed to persistent societal sexism.
If only there was a platform where ancillary concerns are irrelevant, and we could cleanly judge whether customers place less value on products and services offered by females.
Well, it turns out there is: It's called eBay.
A just-published, large-scale study finds that women sellers on the popular e-commerce site "receive a smaller number of bids, and lower final prices, than do equally qualified men."
Specifically, they "received about 80 cents for every dollar a man received when selling the same new product," reports an Israeli research team led by sociologist Tamar Kricheli-Katz of Tel Aviv University.
It's fair to say the "e" in eBay clearly does not stand for "equality."
A couple of caveats that should be mentioned right off the bat. The gap is much smaller when it comes to used items (with women earning 97 cents for every male dollar). And since eBay does not list the gender of its users, the findings rely on the contention that buyers pick up on obvious cues revealing the sellers' gender.
That said, the researchers report in the journal Science Advances that the large gender difference was found in spite of the fact women sellers had, on average, better reputations than men, as measured by their feedback scores.
"What drives the gender pay gap that we observe," they write, "are beliefs about gender, and the effects that they have on consumers' willingness to pay for desired products."
The researchers analyzed "a unique and large data set containing all eBay auction transactions of most popular products by private sellers between the years 2009 and 2012."
"Large" is an understatement: They examined 1,106,741 transactions, featuring the 420 most popular products from each of eBay's meta-categories (including books, computers, cell phones, clothing, and sporting goods).
"For each product, we analyzed all completed transactions in which private sellers from the U.S. were involved," the researchers write. They were also given registration information, which noted the gender of each seller. Women represented 23 percent of private sellers in the data set.
"We compared the number of bids, and final prices achieved, when equally qualified women and men sold the exact same product," the researchers explain. "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."
For such new products, they found female sellers received prices that were 19.7 percent lower than male sellers. "Thus, while selling a new product, women received 80 cents for every dollar received by men," they write.
For used products, women received final prices 2.9 percent lower than men. The researchers suspect this may reflect the fact "potential buyers trust women's accounts of the condition of used products more than they trust men's."
As we noted earlier, potential buyers "do not receive direct information from eBay about the sellers' gender." Yet, the researchers contend, this information "can be gleaned from the range of items a merchant is offering for sale ... and, at times, from the seller's user name."
To test that hypothesis, they conducted a separate study in which 400 people attempted to identify the gender of five actual eBay sellers. "Of the 2,000 evaluations, gender was correctly identified in 1,127 cases, and mistakenly identified in 170," they write. (Participants could not discern gender in the other 701 cases.)
In a final experiment, 116 people recruited online were asked to estimate the monetary value of a $100 Amazon gift card sold by either "Alison" or "Brad." "The average value assigned to the gift card sold by a woman was $83.34," the researchers report, "whereas the average value assigned to the same card sold by a man was $87.42."
"People tend to assign a lower value to products when sold by women," they conclude.
So let's not kid ourselves: Women in the world of commerce still get penalized by irrational, sexist beliefs. While this is surely not restricted to online transactions, it's fair to say the "e" in eBay clearly does not stand for "equality."
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.