Working Paper

The gender reference point gap: Evidence from a representative sample

Published: 2024

This study explores the differences between men and women when it comes to their willingness to take risks. Previous research has shown that women tend to be more risk averse than men, and this gender gap can affect women’s economic opportunities. Typically, attitudes toward risk have been seen as unchangeable traits, which has made it challenging to grasp why these gender gaps exist and how they might be addressed.

We estimate the “reference point” for men and women by conducting an incentivized experiment with 579 individuals, who are representative of the US population along several dimensions. The reference point is the dollar amount that a person would consider as neither a loss, nor a gain in a situation involving risk—in other words, a break-even value. We measured women’s and men’s reference point using several measures, including self-reported salary expectations, task-specific earnings expectations, and estimated the reference point from decisions in a lottery choice task. Across this multitude of reference point measurements, we consistently demonstrate that men have a higher reference point than women. We find that the reference point is positively correlated with financial comfort. We also find that risk tolerance is positively correlated with the reference point.

We find evidence to suggest that common experience closes the gender reference point gap. This finding is particularly relevant to reducing the gender pay gap. By acknowledging that individuals may have disparate reference points in assessing their self-worth, organizations and policymakers can develop interventions that challenge existing gender-based biases. For instance, implementing transparent salary structures, conducting regular pay equity audits, and establishing standardized criteria for performance evaluations can contribute to creating a shared experience, which in turn may reduce the gender gap in risk attitudes by equalizing reference points and expectations.


Levy, J., Ru, O., & Tymula, A. (2024). ‘The gender reference point gap: Evidence from a representative sample’, Life Course Centre Working Paper Series, 2024-17. Institute for Social Science Research, The University of Queensland. DOI: 10.14264/787065c