Everyone’s a little bit sexist sometimes

Zoologist Emma Teeling Speaking at TED-xGoing back over the Inequalities archives (a fine way to spend one’s time I can assure you…), I noticed that, although our discussions have ranged quite widely, we haven’t really talked much about gender. So today, I’m going to address that (erm…) inequality.

Right now the British newspapers are full of opinions about the potential demise of The Sun’s ‘Page 3’ (for our international readers, this is a page in a popular national newspaper featuring a topless woman whose opinions on serious matters of the day we are invited to mock). But I want to talk about a story from a few weeks ago which disappeared rather more quickly. This story was prompted by a recent study (by a group of academics at Yale) showing compelling evidence of discrimination against female job candidates in the physical sciences.

The results of this study go right to the heart of the argument you so often hear when asking why women are heavily under-represented in certain sciences (particularly in more senior positions). This is the argument about ‘choice’. Women ‘choose’ not to pursue physical science subjects at an undergraduate or postgraduate level, and, even if they do, they ‘choose’ not to pursue them as a career.

Leaving aside completely the extent to which women’s choices are influenced or constrained by sexist stereotypes (one of many topics excellently covered, by the way, in Cordelia Fine’s terrific book Delusions of Gender), the fact that some women choose to drop out of science careers does not mean that discrimination doesn’t exist. The fact is that women are underrepresented in the physical sciences. How much of this is due to ‘choice’ and how much to discrimination is an empirical question; one that the Yale study begins to address.

The study looked at jobs at the early stage of a scientific career – post-degree, but pre-doctorate. They contacted 127 biology, physics, and chemistry professors at six large US universities and asked them to evaluate the application materials of a potential job candidate. The professors randomly received applications with either a male (John) or a female name (Jennifer).This was the only difference in the applications, but the results were dramatic. Female applicants were rated as less competent, less hireable, and less worthy of working with a senior academic. They were also judged to deserve a lower salary. And these weren’t just small differences. On a seven point scale, women were on average rated almost a full point lower than men in every category. Most shocking of all, they were considered deserving of a salary almost $4,000 lower ($26,507 for women vs. $30,238 for men). These sexist responses were common across the board; from male and female professors alike, and from all three disciplines.

Why should this be? Why should biology, chemistry, and physics professors of both genders rate an application from a woman so much lower than an identical one from a man? The answer is pretty simple. Because, despite all the progress we’ve made, these scientists, along with all the rest of us, live in a society which is still steeped in sexist, stereotyped views of gender. Nobody growing up in our society can help internalising, on some unconscious level, sexist views about the differences between men and women; about what men and women are good and bad at. The authors of the study put this in a slightly more technical fashion: “…people’s behavior is shaped by implicit or unintended biases, stemming from repeated exposure to pervasive cultural stereotypes that portray women as less competent but simultaneously emphasize their warmth and likeability compared with men”.

Previous studies have confirmed the concrete effects of these sexist biases over and over. But the sheer scale of the differences found in this study (a $4,000 salary difference!) make me wonder what’s happening in other fields. Are these processes affecting hiring, promotion, and salary decisions even in areas where women are better represented, like the social sciences? This is a particular worry for positions that require quantitative or leadership skills.

One final point the authors make makes me even more concerned that sexism intrudes even into fields we consider ‘safe’. They note that “people who value their objectivity and fairness are paradoxically particularly likely to fall prey to biases, in part because they are not on guard against subtle biases”. In other words, people who assume that they are naturally objective and fair, and would never let someone’s gender affect their decisions, are all the more likely to let their actual sexist biases (which almost everyone has) influence their behaviour. This is an absolutely crucial idea. Everyone has these unconscious biases. Sexist, racist – every other ‘ist’ you can think of. We can’t help it – It’s an unavoidable consequence of living in the society we live in. What we can do, what we have a duty to do, is not to pretend that these biases don’t exist, but to constantly question ourselves. To question our attitudes and our behaviour, and to always be on the lookout for how the implicit prejudices we know we have might be affecting how we treat people.

About Robert de Vries

I'm an Early Career Research Fellow in the Sociology department at the University of Oxford. I'm mainly interested in how people are affected by concerns about their social status; how it colours the way they think, feel, and behave. I try and contribute here regularly, but my addiction to writing excessively long posts keeps getting in the way.
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2 Responses to Everyone’s a little bit sexist sometimes

  1. Stephen says:

    Very interesting but I haven’t quite decided whether or not I am surprised. A sound conclusion

  2. Pingback: Should media representation of women be a feminist priority? | Inequalities

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