Women and men differ across a variety of behaviors, including their tendency to negotiate. The difference in propensity to negotiate has been argued to contribute to the gender gap in the labor market.
In a new IZA discussion paper, Cher Li and Basit Zafar study whether and why there are gender differences in grade changes in college. Since grades serve as productivity signals and many employers require transcripts for entry-level jobs, gender differences in grade changes in college may put equally qualified women at a disadvantage when they compete for the same position.
Men are more likely to ask
Using a unique administrative dataset from a large four-year public university, the authors find that men are 18.6% more likely than women to have their grade changed to a better grade. This gender gap can hardly be explained by the characteristics of the students, instructors, and classes. Although grade changes are infrequent after instructors submitted the final grades, 40% of students reported that they asked their instructor for a better grade at some point during their college life.
Administrative data is limited in what it can tell us about the origins of the gender differences in regrades. For example, they may be a result of at least three distinct scenarios: 1) male students are more likely than female students to ask instructors for grade changes although instructors treat all requests equally; 2) male and female students ask for grade changes at the same rate, but the outcomes are more favorable for males than for females when they ask; and 3) if female students make regrade requests during the semester, it may lower their demand for regrade requests at the end of the semester.
Ask and you shall receive?
To understand the mechanism, the researchers conducted surveys among instructors and students. The surveys support the first scenario and show that men are indeed more likely than women to ask for regrades. Therefore, even if instructors treat all regrade requests equally, we are still more likely to see more men than women getting their grade changed to a better grade. The study did not find evidence supporting the other two scenarios. Conditional on asking, men and women are similarly likely to see their grade changed to a better grade. Furthermore, men are more likely than women to ask not only at the end of the semester, but also during the semester.
To corroborate the results from the surveys, the authors conducted a laboratory experiment to test the gender differences in asking for regrades. In the experiment, participants completed a quiz, and the payoff was tied to the grade they received—the higher their score, the higher their payment. The experimenters picked 3 out of 20 questions to randomly grade them. Therefore, the initial grade could be the participant’s true grade, but it could also be higher or lower than their true grade.
Participants were fully informed of the uncertainty in the grades, and they were giving ten different cost scenarios to decide whether they are willing to pay the cost to get it regraded. If they paid the cost, the true grade was revealed and their payment was adjusted. If they chose not to pay the cost, the initial grade became final and they were paid accordingly. The researchers find that given a positive cost, nearly half of male participants versus slightly over one-third of female participants were willing to pay the cost to get a regrade.
Women are more uncertain about their performance
Why don’t women ask? Women tend to be less confident about their answers and more uncertain about their performance in the quiz. Nearly half of the gender difference in the willingness to pay for a regrade can be explained by the gender differences in the confidence level, uncertainty about the potential outcomes, and personality traits. However, the remaining half of the gender gap remained unexplained. In the survey, female students also reported a relatively high stress level when they have to ask.
The study thus shows that men and women do differ in their tendency to ask, even when they are still in school. The researchers suggest that making an explicit and transparent grading (and regrading) policy for students to follow would take part of the uncertainty out of the equation. They also believe that making clear grading standards could send a strong signal of student’s performance in the class to reduce the gender gap in grade changes. Being aware of the gender difference in asking and addressing the uncertainty in grading policy is likely to reduce the female disadvantage in grade changes and subsequent labor market outcomes, the authors argue.