Internal Seminar: Sveva Vitellozzi

Title: "Under pressure: the impact of mental load on women's productivity and occupational choices. Experimental evidence from Kenya"

  • Date: 10 May 2023 from 13:00 to 14:00

  • Event location: Seminar Room - Piazza Scaravilli, 2 + Microsoft Teams Meeting


Mental load is a widespread but invisible psychological burden. It mainly affects women, encumbering them with concerns related to household management and children’s well-being. In this study, we investigate the gender-differentiated impact of mental load on labor productivity and self-selection into jobs. We conduct a lab-in-the-field experiment with 720 participants in Nairobi, in which we randomly trigger thoughts related to mental load, and then ask to perform an incentive-compatible manual or cognitive task. Results show that mental load reduces productivity by 0.25 SD but only for women in the manual task treatment, not in the cognitively demanding one. Supported by qualitative interviews, we interpret this as evidence that not all jobs are equal and that jobs that require greater cognitive focus tend to shield from daily hassles, and are less prone to mental load-induced productivity losses. This pattern is confirmed in later occupational choices: treated women that experienced the cognitively demanding task immediately after treatment do not change their behavior, while those who performed the manual task first are more likely to self-select precisely into the less remunerative manual task, with lasting consequences on their income (-0.26 SD). This study provides evidence of an understudied psychological channel that, by creating a negative performance loop, widens the gender productivity gap and contributes to the reinforcement of the psychological poverty traps identified in the literature.