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Breaking Down Gender Inequality

Updated: Dec 14, 2021

This article was written in partnership with Nova Women in Business


Progress towards gender equality has been taking place for years and, fortunately, many stereotypes and inequalities have been overcome. However, it is a long process and society still experiences a considerable gender gap. One situation where there is often inequality between genders is the labor market, where men still earn higher salaries than women in the exact same position. Additionally, there are less women employed in high level management and leadership positions. This discrepancy in the labor market is caused by various factors, and it may be explained with the help of behavioural science, by understanding some of the concepts and biases behind it.

Social Norms

Social Norms refer to the informal rules, values and attitudes in groups and societies that assert power dynamics for interactions between individuals. They dictate masculine and feminine expectations of individual’s roles in households and workplaces and what is considered socially acceptable. Although men do face social biases, women often face further capability biases when it comes to more enhanced forms of participation in the political and economic dimension. For example, according to the World Values Survey, 32.2% of the population believed that men should have more rights to a job than women (basic right), 42.1% still believe men make better business executives than women do (enhanced right). This shows that there is still hesitation when it comes to the capabilities of women in the workplace and can provide an insight into why there is still a prominent pay-gap. When more concentrated political and economic power is at stake, women are severely underrepresented. However, norms can change through improving the legal and political systems, through political activism and exposure through education, role models and media.

Dunning Kruger effect

The Dunning Kruger effect is a bias that happens when a person cannot recognise his/her abilities. It can be responsible for underestimating relative capacities, someone who has amazing capacities for a certain area and just thinks everyone would be able to perform the task, and for overestimating relative capacities, a person that might not have the best skills to complete a specific activity but having confidence in thinking that it’s performing it above average.

This bias happens because when one has not much knowledge about a theme, then this person will not be able to detect his/her own mistakes and knowledge gaps, resulting in overconfidence.

On the other hand, when someone is excellent in a determined subject, it is easier to spot the mistakes and sometimes the person performs the activity in such a natural way that it is not able to understand that it isn’t this way for everyone. This results in that sometimes the Dunning Kruger effect is not making someone underestimating its capacities, but rather overestimating the others’ capacities when performing the same activity.

In consequence of the Dunning Kruger effect, it often happens that the ones who have fewer skills in certain areas are the ones that overestimate themselves the most. This has negative consequences on the labour market. Men tend to be more confident than women, which might lead men to overestimate their capacities for a certain job position, or for women to underestimate theirs. In job interviews confidence plays a big role, thus the Dunning Kruger effect might be one of the explanations for why there is such a higher number of men in leadership positions.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a theory that states that we tend to avoid conflicts that make us uncomfortable when we are held between two or more beliefs. It is mostly visible when face a dilemma: we believe in something, but we act in the opposite way. The result of this is the acceptance of one belief strongly and reject the other(s). Tendentiously, we pick the one that we are more used to see.

In the labor market, the presence of cognitive dissonance can be a huge problem. For centuries, this market was just for men, and so the belief of the disconnection between women and work starts to become ingrained.

Women being a part of the labor market started as a necessity since men were in war (World War I and World War II). Almost 100 years has passed, and the belief that women can have the same position on firms as men, is still a subject. Cognitive dissonance explains this effect, since for most of the people the belief that men are more capable than women is very intrinsic and so only 8% CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are female.

Not only men suffer from cognitive dissonance effect, women too. Is a belief that do not correspond to the truth, but it is what we are used to see for centuries. There is not a way to avoid cognitive dissonance, but we can challenge our beliefs, with new information, letting women be a part on labor market with the same opportunities.


Social norms, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and cognitive dissonance are just a few of the behavioural aspects behind the gender wage gap. With social norms, it is hard to change what we have come to expect. The Dunning-Kruger effect prevents many, especially women, from believing in their own abilities, even with exceptional evidence that they are indeed capable. On the other side, it often leads to those who are under-qualified to overestimate what they can offer. Cognitive dissonance holds many people back from moving forward towards a more equal workplace. Through discussion and organised change, it is possible to create a brighter future.

If everyone, and especially women, is aware of these issues, they can speak up and rely on each other. Social norms are fluid and change over time. The Dunning-Kruger effect can be at least partially avoided by hiring and assigning roles based on proven ability, not just trusting a reference or what someone says about themselves. It can also be fought by students and young professionals practicing confidence in their own abilities from a young age and being aware of what they are capable and not capable of. Lastly, cognitive dissonance can be overcome with the change of more and more women in leadership positions.

In the future, as people are more aware of and work towards reducing these issues, this will lead to more women being hired into jobs that they are capable of and earning equal pay.

Written by:

Clara Voss & Inês Gomes from Women in Business

Beatriz Martins & Catarina Chambino from Nudge Club

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