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November 30, 2020

How to play it safe? The gender gap in aversion to Covid-19 exposure

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The Covid-19 pandemic has been spreading around the world, killing 1.2 million people by the end of October 2020. Evidence has emerged that the virus affects men and women differently. Women are less likely than men to become severely ill or die, but they are just as likely to get infected. Moreover, women more often perceive the virus as prevalent and lethal, are more worried about contracting and spreading it, and are more likely to comply with containment policies. At the same time, women are more exposed to contagion at work as they are more often engaged in workplace interactions than men and more often work in the so-called essential jobs, such as those in health care and retail, which continue to be performed even during lockdowns.

An important question arises: if people could freely choose their work environment, would women be more willing to avoid exposure to contagion? To answer it, we studied the gender gap in aversion to pandemic exposure, using a natural experiment of the US Open tennis tournament held in New York City in September 2020. It is a useful setting for studying gender differences in decision-making. Firstly, tennis is an individual sport, so the decision of a player does not depend on a group strategy, but rather on the individual’s preferences or on other psychological factors. Secondly, the US Open offered identical conditions for participation and the same prize money amounts for both men and women. Thirdly, participation could have been perceived as risky, as the tournament took place in the country that by that time had accumulated the most Covid-19 cases and deaths. 

Analyzing the factors behind the voluntary withdrawals of players who were fit and ready to play, we found that female players were significantly more likely to have withdrawn from the tournament. Players from countries characterized by higher levels of patience and trust, and lower levels of risk-taking, were also significantly more likely to play it safe. However, even after accounting for the cross-county differences in preferences, women were significantly more likely to have withdrawn from the tournament. This gender gap was particularly large among the non-US players, who could have been afraid of traveling to the US. We also found that it was particularly large among the players ranked in the top 50, who are richer than the players ranked lower and can afford to act according to their risk preferences.

Interestingly, the data about Covid-19 cases among tennis players are consistent with our findings: between February and October 2020, ten of the top 100 male players, and none of the top 100 female players tested positive. Only one of these cases was found during the US Open.

Tennis players are a well-paid group of professionals, who can afford to refrain from work if they perceive it as too risky. Most working women do not have such an option and cannot avoid exposure at work. As a result, being more risk-averse than men, the necessity of work might contribute to their greater reported worsening of mental health conditions during the pandemic. Focusing on gender differences in labor market outcomes may underestimate the true gender impact of Covid-19 in terms of well-being.

© Piotr Lewandowski and Zuzanna Kowalik

Piotr Lewandowski is an economist and the president of the Institute for Structural Research (IBS), Poland, and a Research Fellow of IZA.
Zuzanna Kowalik is a researcher at the Institute for Structural Research (IBS), Poland.

Find more IZA World of Labor coronavirus content on our curated topics pages: National responses to Covid-19 and Covid-19—Pandemics and the labor market.

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