The psychological dimension of gender inequality

By Sveva Vitellozzi

In March 2021 I was awarded with the LEAP Student Grant to conduct a lab-in-the-field experiment in Kenya, with the aim of assessing the impact of women’s mental load on cognitive functions and labor productivity.

The idea for this experiment came during my first year of Ph.D. during the class on Behavioral and Experimental Economics while we were asked to write a research proposal of a hypothetical lab experiment. Throughout this course, we talked about the strand of academic literature on the “psychology of poverty”, according to which poverty reduces cognitive functions as it causes daily stress about financial needs (Mani et al. 2013; Schilbach, Schofield, e Mullainathan 2016). The idea of writing my research proposal on women’s mental load, cognitive functions, and productivity was inspired by a comic by Emma, a French author that explains in a very enjoyable and accessible way what mental load is and what it entails (click here to read the article).

Why should we care about mental load?

Mental load refers to the total sum of responsibilities related to the management of household activities. Consequently, women spend not only more “physical” time than men in household’s chores, but also more “mental” time, which constitutes an important psychological burden for them. In developing countries, this burden risks being even more pronounced because of the strict gender roles defined in many traditional societies.

Being an invisible phenomenon, mental load has been long neglected. Only in recent years social media and the press, mostly in Western societies, have started paying more attention to it but it has not been properly addressed in the economic literature yet, nor have its consequences  on economic outcomes. Even though the nature of mental load may differ across countries, as the household’s needs women take care of change across contexts and cultures, its burden is carried mostly by women worldwide.

Hypothesis and design

The main hypothesis of the study is that mental load, by inducing daily and pressing thoughts about household management, negatively affects women’s labor productivity by reducing their attention, which is a limited cognitive resource. In developing countries, and especially in Africa, important gender productivity gaps are observed (Kilic, Palacios-López, e Goldstein 2015; Backiny-Yetna e McGee 2015), but we still do not know whether and to what extent the psychological dimension plays a role in widening this gap. In contexts where the informal labor market is well established, workers are usually paid with a piecework scheme: the more you produce, the more you are paid. The basic assumption is that having the mind occupied by other thoughts can reduce a subject’s attention at the workplace and, consequently, their productivity. This can in turn entail a series of other important consequences for women’s empowerment and for gender equality more broadly.

To test this hypothesis, I plan to run a lab-in-the-field experiment in Kenya in February 2022. Even though the design of the experiment still needs to be finalized, the aim is to trigger thoughts related to household management among participants within the treatment group. They will then be asked to perform an effort task that requires both care and attention, to control for the causal mechanism being tested. The task needs to be sufficiently unrelated to those daily activities usually carried out by the participants, to isolate at best the confounding effects of individual ability. Women in the treatment group are expected to exhibit a lower score in the effort task than those in the control group. 

Pathways for the future

Mental load represents just the tip of the iceberg of the psychological dimension of gender (in)equality. While mental load risks entailing a series of negative effects, such as increased stress and anxiety, it is not the only psychological factor that can contribute to widening gender inequalities worldwide. For instance, women are more likely than men to suffer from depression (Nolen-Hoeksema 2001), which can in turn affect a series of economic outcomes such as labor supply and employment, saving and investment decisions, and labor productivity (Ridley et al. 2020). Especially in developing countries, studies focusing on gender inequalities do not pay particular attention to these psychological dimensions. However, psychological well-being constitutes a crucial dimension of women’s empowerment and is essential to understand to what extent it shapes women’s daily lives and decisions. Further research is needed in this direction to inform at best policymakers and development practitioners to help them design more effective gender-driven programs and policies.


Backiny-Yetna, Prospere, e Kevin McGee. 2015. Gender Differentials and Agricultural Productivity in Niger. Policy Research Working Papers. The World Bank.

Kilic, Talip, Amparo Palacios-López, e Markus Goldstein. 2015. «Caught in a Productivity Trap: A Distributional Perspective on Gender Differences in Malawian Agriculture». World Development 70 (giugno): 416–63.

Mani, Anandi, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir, e Jiaying Zhao. 2013. «Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function». Science 341 (6149): 976–80.

Nolen-Hoeksema, Susan. 2001. «Gender Differences in Depression». Current Directions in Psychological Science 10 (5): 173–76.

Ridley, Matthew, Gautam Rao, Frank Schilbach, e Vikram Patel. 2020. «Poverty, Depression, and Anxiety: Causal Evidence and Mechanisms». Science 370 (6522): eaay0214.

Schilbach, Frank, Heather Schofield, e Sendhil Mullainathan. 2016. «The Psychological Lives of the Poor». The American Economic Review 106 (5): 435–40.