The XX Factor

It’s April 15! Women, We Are Very Tax Compliant.

Do women obey the IRS more out of ethical uprightness, fear, or something else?

Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Happy April 15! Have you paid your taxes yet? If you are a woman, I’m going to bet the answer’s yes. Researchers haven’t found a way to track what portion of the yearly $170 billion tax gap (the icy tundra separating how much tax money the government receives from how much it would receive if everyone coughed up the accurate amount) belongs to women, but numerous experiments suggest a strong gender effect on tax compliance. Specifically, “Women seem to be more compliant than men,” says John Hasseldine, a professor of taxation at the University of New Hampshire. “You need to control for other variables, such as education and income level—for example, those in white-collar professions appear to be more compliant than blue-collar workers—but quite a few studies support the gender effect.”

Hasseldine led a classic 1999 survey of 600 adults living in a Midwestern college town. After asking respondents to anonymously rate their attitudes about tax evasion, report any previous tax dodging, and answer questions about a hypothetical instance of tax trickery, he found that women showed more compliance across all three measures. They were less permissive in theory, less likely to have underpaid or overdeducted in practice, and less inclined to bend the rules in an imaginary scenario. These results, Hasseldine told me, would later be replicated in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

Harder to pin down is why the spirit of obligation might burn brighter in female taxpayers. Though some point to external factors like access to the household purse-strings, Hasseldine views the compliance gap as a matter of socialization. I see his point: Girls get praised from a very young age for following the rules, while many boys learn early on via sports and roughhousing to take risks and chase glory. A 2003 study on framing, gender, and tax compliance would seem to support the cultural conditioning account. When 800 men and women were presented with ads that tried to persuade them to pay their taxes, the men responded more powerfully to threats of economic penalties, while women complied more with ads that appealed to their consciences.

More recently, the Journal of Economic Psychology published a paper elaborating on the link between gender roles and W-2s. Students at an Italian university enrolled in a “game” that involved 60 rounds of fake taxpaying. (Fun game!) They could choose at every round whether to furnish adequate amounts to the “government,” knowing that they’d be audited at a fixed probability, and that detected cheating would result in a fine. “If the average woman paid $100, the average man paid $80,” revealed Luigi Mittone, a co-author of the study. “The female students were about 20 percent more tax compliant.”   

But Mittone and his team were even more interested in what they call the “bomb crater effect”—the tendency of people who have just undergone an audit to cheat the following year. Mittone named this robust phenomenon after stories about the soldiers in World War I who hid in blasted-open pocks of earth, speculating that explosions wouldn’t strike the same place twice. The team discovered that female students seemed to be impervious to the bomb crater effect. Also unaffected: men whose survey results indicated a “weak masculine identity.” (In Mittone’s telling, they didn’t see themselves as paradigms of testosterone-fueled brio.) Yet men with “a strong male cultural identity” hopped from figurative crater to crater, eluding the asks of the government far more frequently post-audit than any of their peers.

Why? I asked Mittone. What’s so manly about tax evasion?

“The reaction seems to be driven by aggressiveness,” he replied. “If the government says, ‘I’m coming to look at you and find you out,’ it’s almost like they’re starting a fight. The men may perceive the audit as aggressive, and feel like they’re under formal attack. So they’re not going to want to cooperate; they’re going to react aggressively.” 

No wonder he picked a war metaphor. Meanwhile, when I asked whether any factors reduced female tax compliance, Mittone recalled another study he’d done. In this one, participants were grouped into anonymous quartets and tasked with building a “pie” out of individual contributions. Eventually someone in the group lost the ability to enrich the pie and requested help. Players were allowed to cover their teammate or to reject the plea. None of them ever saw one another. It turns out that women chose to help 70 percent of the time, while men only upped their contributions 35 percent of the time. But then, the researchers reshuffled the groups to make them single-sex: The game resumed once participants learned that all their teammates belonged to the same gender. Crazily enough, this was enough to dramatically transform the results. Women in all-woman groups helped less than 60 percent of the time, and men in all-male groups helped 65 percent of the time. Apparently, if you want the spirit of female obligation to sputter a bit, you should start by taking men out of the picture. Or, if you want men to feel more obliged, stick them with their own kind and let them try to one-up one another.