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Gender Differences in Preferences for Meaning at Work


  • Burbano, Vanessa

    (Columbia Business School)

  • Padilla, Nicolas

    (Columbia Business School)

  • Meier, Stephan

    (Columbia University)


In an effort to better understand occupational segregation by gender, scholars have begun to examine gender differences in preferences for job characteristics. We contend that a critical job characteristic has been overlooked to date: meaning at work; and in particular, meaning at work induced by job mission. We provide empirical evidence of the importance of gender differences in preferences for meaning at work using mixed methods. First, we demonstrate the universality of gender differences in preferences for meaning at work using a cross-country survey covering individuals in 47 countries. We show that these differences become more pronounced with greater levels of education and economic development, suggesting that their importance is likely to increase over time. To address potential social desirability bias in responses about job preferences and to examine whether differences in preferences translate into differences in important behavioral outcomes, we next conduct a conjoint analysis of a cohort of MBA students at a top US university and track their behavior over two years. We show show that preferences for meaning at work, particularly meaning induced by job mission, explain gender differences in not only types of courses taken, but also job industry placement during and after the MBA, thus helping to explain the under-representation of females in higher-paying industries. Overall, this research establishes that men and women differ in their preferences for meaning at work, with important implications for our understanding of the drivers of occupational segregation and of the consequences of corporate mission and purpose.

Suggested Citation

  • Burbano, Vanessa & Padilla, Nicolas & Meier, Stephan, 2020. "Gender Differences in Preferences for Meaning at Work," IZA Discussion Papers 13053, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
  • Handle: RePEc:iza:izadps:dp13053

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    2. Paul Schüle, 2023. "Career Preferences and Socio-Economic Background," ifo Working Paper Series 395, ifo Institute - Leibniz Institute for Economic Research at the University of Munich.
    3. José-Ignacio Antón & Rafael Grande & Rafael Muñoz de Bustillo & Fernando Pinto, 2023. "Gender Gaps in Working Conditions," Social Indicators Research: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal for Quality-of-Life Measurement, Springer, vol. 166(1), pages 53-83, February.
    4. Jaroslav Mihálik & Alexandra Matejková, 2022. "Mainstreaming the Gender: Measuring the Job Attributes and Gender Differences across Selected EU Member States," Sustainability, MDPI, vol. 14(8), pages 1-19, April.

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    More about this item


    job design; job preferences; mission; gender segregation by occupation; meaning at work;
    All these keywords.

    JEL classification:

    • D91 - Microeconomics - - Micro-Based Behavioral Economics - - - Role and Effects of Psychological, Emotional, Social, and Cognitive Factors on Decision Making
    • J16 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics - - - Economics of Gender; Non-labor Discrimination

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