The Disturbing Science Behind Subconscious Gender Bias

Scene one:

We’re at my daughter’s preschool for an end-of-the-year party. She’s sitting in a circle with the other girls in her class, silently watching the boys lift toy barbells and show off how strong they are.

I seriously consider stalking out in protest, but force myself to stay and make do with calling out “What about the girls?”

This calling-out isn’t nearly as loud as the screaming in my head.

Scene two:

We’re at a different preschool event with the same teacher. The teacher has to move a table and asks, “Which boys can come help me?”

Scene three:

My husband drops off a different daughter at her preschool. Her brown hair is loose. The teacher ties her hair into a ponytail and tells her approvingly, “NOW you look pretty!” She doesn’t actually say my daughter only looks pretty when she does something with her hair. But then, she doesn’t have to.

Scene four:

My daughter, now in kindergarten, is in a school play, and is handed a doll. She’s supposed to hold it and pretend to be its mother. The rest of the girls get dolls too. But the boys have other stuff to do.

No one says, “It’s the girl’s job to take care of babies.” Instead, their assigned roles do the talking.

All these scenes may prompt you to ask the question: So what?

Why make a big deal of these situations? What difference does it make anyway? Why get all “raging feministy”? Aren’t there worse things in life to worry about?

In one form or another, these are the sentiments I hear over and over again — whether in person or online; directed at me or at someone else or fired off into the ether — when I bring up situations like the ones above that I have observed.

I’ve been told not to get upset over the little things because I’ll have bigger problems to worry about as my kids get older. I’ve been told that it’s cute for 4-year-old boys to pretend they’re lifting weights while the girls sit around and watch. Many seem to think these incidents are no big deal, that they barely register in the minds of young children like my four daughters, who range in age from 3 to soon-to-be 9.

I don’t agree. But this goes way beyond my personal opinion.

We know gender bias is real, that it starts early, and that it doesn’t have to be intentionally discriminatory to cause harm — not because of subjective opinion, but because of the objective reality of cold, hard science.

The Power Of Implicit Bias

Sometimes acts of violence predicated, at least in part, on some form of gender or sexuality bias break through to the surface: Bill Cosby’s long history of (allegedly) drugging and raping woman after woman after woman, Brock Turner’s sexual assault of an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on the Stanford campus, Omar Mateen’s deadly shooting rampage at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Reports of violence like this make it easier to see the extreme end of what can happen when people are overtly discriminatory.

But more often, people operate from a place of implicit bias. That is, they make dangerous judgements on a subconscious level. As the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity puts it:

“These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness. Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection.”

These biases manifest in the comments my daughters are frequently exposed to — comments that might also be defined as “microaggressions.” Such biases, the institute notes, are “pervasive.” And they can manifest from a very early age.

Child development research has shown that children can distinguish between male and female categories from a young age, and make stereotypical associations between men and women and gender-typed objects such as fire trucks and makeup mirrors, hammers and scarves. Such studies, write the authors of the 2009 textbook Gender Development, “consistently demonstrate the early emergence of children’s knowledge of the link between gender and various qualities and activities.”

As studies about implicit bias have shown, these classifications contribute to subconscious associations that affect how we think about people who are different from us, and even how we think about ourselves. And these categorizations are not value-free.

“Children appear to act as though boys have higher status,” write Gender Development authors Judith E. Owen Blakemore, Sheri A. Berenbaum, and Lynn S. Liben, citing research about gender and peer groups. Researchers found that even in preschool, girls are less able to get boys to respond to their requests than boys are to influence others. And in elementary school, boys are less willing to allow girls into their peer groups than girls are to allow boys into theirs — trends that “are consistent with boys having a higher status than girls, even as children.”

Later in life, these early biases very much endure. A review of more than 2.5 million Implicit Association (IAT) scores between 2000 and 2006, for instance, revealed that people implicitly associate men with science and career, and women with liberal arts and family.

“Because these biases are activated on an unconscious level, it’s not a matter of individuals knowingly acting in discriminatory ways,” the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, based at Ohio State University, notes in a discussion guide appended to its 2014 report on scientific findings on implicit bias. “Implicit bias research tells us that you don’t have to have negative intent in order to have discriminatory outcomes. That’s a pretty huge statement, if you think about it.”

We may occasionally like to think we live in a “post-gender” world, but biases affect how others think of women — and, perhaps most disturbingly, how girls and women think of themselves. And this, in turn, can hinder equality.

Biases In The World Of STEM

In the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), it’s possible to see just how dire the impacts of implicit bias can be.

A 2013 U.S. Census Bureau report found that women’s representation in computer jobs has actually declined since the 1990s, and that male science and engineering graduates are employed in STEM occupations at twice the rate of female science and engineering graduates. This then affects women’s earnings, since STEM employment provides a pay boost.

The report found that among science and engineering graduates working full-time, women earned $58,800 a year on average — 69% of men’s average earnings of $85,000. That’s even worse than women fare nationwide, with U.S. women who work full-time typically making 79% of men’s salaries.

In large part, these disparities seem rooted in implicit bias.

A 2015 study on gender bias, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, asked academics in STEM subjects, academics in non-STEM subjects, and the general public to read one of two abstracts: a real one from a study that found bias against women in the sciences, or a tweaked one that ostensibly found no bias. The subjects were asked to evaluate the quality of the research.

The study found that asking about gender bias ended up uncovering something that looks a heck of a lot like gender bias.

Men viewed the real findings, about bias existing, less favorably than women (and the false findings about lack of bias more favorably), a difference that was particularly marked among male STEM faculty members. Those are, of course, the very people who are presumably the most likely to be perpetrating any bias against women in the sciences.

“However unintentional or subtle, systematic gender bias favoring male scientists and their work could significantly hinder scientific progress and communication,” write the PNAS study authors, psychologists Ian M. Handley, Elizabeth R. Brown, Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, and Jessi L. Smith. “In fact, the evidence for a gender bias in STEM suggests that our scientific community is not living up to its potential, because homogenous workforces (including the academic workplace) can deplete the creativity, discovery, and satisfaction of workers, faculty, and students.”

Many women, however, don’t even get far enough in the sciences to encounter discrimination in the classroom or the lab. That’s because gender bias isn’t just about how men view women. Gender stereotypes are at their most insidious when they turn the targets of the stereotypes against themselves.

Multiple studies have shown that girls and women underestimate their proven performance in areas they are stereotyped as doing poorly in, such as science and math.

A 2003 Cornell University study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that women tend to rate their scientific reasoning ability more negatively than men rate theirs. They evaluated themselves as performing worse than men did on a short scientific reasoning test, even though they performed as well as men on average. What’s more, the women — the same ones who did just as well as the men on the test — were far less interested in participating in a science competition, or even finding out more about it, than men were. While 71% of men showed interest in signing up, just 49% of women did.

“Women might disproportionately avoid scientific pursuits because their self-views lead them to mischaracterize how well they are objectively doing on any given scientific task,” write study authors Joyce Ehrlinger and David Dunning. “Because they think they are doing more poorly than do men, they are more likely than men to avoid science when given an option.”

A 2006 Journal of Experimental Social Psychology study of 137 French high school students found that both boys and girls misremembered their own scores on an important high school entrance exam. And the memory gaps were far from random.

In the study, boys underestimated their arts scores, while girls remembered their math scores as being lower than they really were. This gap was especially notable when students reported believing in gender stereotypes and when they were primed to think about men’s and women’s abilities in math and the arts before being asked to recall their scores.

“The more students believed in gender stereotypes prior to recall, the more they biased their reported marks, compared to their actual marks, in a stereotype-consistent way,” found researchers Armand Chatard, Serge Guimond, and Leila Selimbegovic.

Writing about the study in her 2011 book Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, academic psychologist Cordelia Fine points out the effect that this distorted view of one’s own abilities can have on what those high schoolers study and what jobs they take.

“It’s not impossible to imagine two young people considering different occupational paths when, with gender in mind, a boy sees himself as an A student while an equally successful girl thinks she’s only a B,” writes Fine.

False Information Is Hard To Forget

Compounding all this is the fact that, it turns out, it’s much harder to forget incorrect information that you’ve inferred yourself, based on hints and clues and implicit messages, than it is to forget incorrect information you’ve explicitly been told, according to a recent study conducted by Kent State University researchers Patrick Rich and Maria Zaragoza. “Misinformation that is ‘merely’ implied,” they write, “is more difficult to eradicate than misinformation that is stated explicitly.”

Rich and Zaragoza’s misinformation study, published in January in the American Psychological Association-affiliated Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, found out what 861 subjects thought about who stole the jewelry of a (fictional) couple whose home was burgled while they were on vacation.

All the subjects were told that the burgled couple’s son had gambling debts and had been asked by his parents to check in on the house while they were away. In the explicit statement scenario, participants were also told straight out that the son was a suspect in the case. In the implied information scenario, opportunity and motive were described but the son was not specifically classified as a suspect.

Building on previous research consistently demonstrating that issuing a correction isn’t enough to counter the effects of misleading information in news reports, Rich and Zaragoza investigated how respondents processed different kinds of information. Did it make a difference, they wanted to know, if readers were explicitly told inaccurate information or if they had to infer it for themselves? Did it affect the extent to which they believed the corrected story?

What the study found was that a correction was “much less effective following implied misinformation” than it was when it followed explicit misinformation. In this case, that meant study participants were more likely to believe the son robbed his parents when they inferred that he was a suspect than when they were out-and-out told he was.

Corrections are more readily internalized when they provide an alternative explanation. But even when participants were told the new suspect was an ex-con whose girlfriend used to clean the parents’ house, study participants who had to infer the son was a suspect were still more likely to continue believing in his guilt than those who read outright that police suspected him. This was the case even though both groups equally remembered a factual correction stating that the son was out of town at the time of the theft.

What Do We Do Now?

Let’s say we can agree that sexist microaggressions are prevalent and difficult to address. After all, we’ve seen that even women who graduate with a science or engineering degree make less than three-quarters of the salary received by men who studied the same subjects. And women even internalize negative stereotypes about themselves, underestimating their scientific reasoning and the math scores they earned, something their male peers don’t do when it comes to math and science.

Is there anything we can do about it? And if so, what?

Staying silent and hoping our kids won’t notice is probably a bad idea.

The thing with implicit assumptions — those very assumptions that can cause so much trouble down the road — is that, as we have seen, they are easy for children from the age of about 2 to ingest with their Cheerios, but are very difficult to get rid of.

So when a teacher asks only the boys to help her move a table, when boys are told what a good job they did while girls are told how nice they look, we should not be relieved that at least the authority figures are not saying out loud that girls are weak or that a girl’s job is to sit down and look pretty. On the contrary, keeping mum about the sexist assumptions underlying seemingly innocuous statements or actions can compel kids to draw their own inferences. And once they do that, it can be all the harder to correct the assumptions they weave together themselves.

Rich and Zaragoza, the researchers in the Kent State misinformation study, say one reason implied misinformation may be so hard to correct is that it requires people to actively form mental connections on their own.

One way we can offload those sticky implicit assumptions, then, is by bringing them out in the open and making them explicit, especially if we can offer alternative explanations, the researchers say.

When I talk about these assumptions with my young children I often end up using the word “silly,” which I have found to be extraordinarily useful in conveying that something is way off-base without using insult words. As in: “I really liked your play, but there was one thing I thought was pretty silly: that only the girls held the baby dolls. We know that mommies take care of babies AND daddies take care of babies.” (I left the problems with prepping 6-year-old girls for parenthood for another day. There’s only so much I can tackle at once.) In this case, it was my daughter who volunteered an alternative explanation. “Maybe the teacher didn’t know that,” she said.

Often my kids will use the word “silly” themselves when telling me things that happened in school. At 4, one of my children told me, borrowing from the language of previous conversations we had had: “The boys say that girls can only use the pink and purple crayons, but that’s silly. All the colors are for everybody!”

Counter-stereotypic imaging, in which people intentionally think of examples that defy the stereotype — whether a famous person, like Marie Curie, or a familiar person like a friend or neighbor who doesn’t fit into a given stereotype — is another strategy for reducing implicit bias, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The counter-stereotype doesn’t even have to be a specific person; it can be an abstract association between a group and a non-stereotypic attribute.

In my home, for instance, my daughters have come to think of themselves as strong girls because that is the term I often use to describe them, whether I’m sprawled out on the couch and ask for a hand (“Are there any strong girls here who can help me up?”) or they are holding open a door for the rest of us (“What a strong girl!”). It seems to be having an effect; not long ago, my 7-year-old carried a chair into the kitchen and nonchalantly said, “I brought in the chair all by myself, even though it was heavy. Cause I’m strong.”

Other strategies cited in the study include stereotype replacement, in which we recognize that a response is stereotypical and replace it with a non-stereotypical response, and perspective taking, meaning that we imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes. In the context of gender bias, the latter strategy is particularly relevant, and important, for parents of boys. It’s important to talk about this with all our children — and not just once either. The ongoing dialogues that can pull apart the stereotypes forming the scaffolding of implicit bias must not be the province solely of any group being burned by those stereotypes.

Gender bias builds up over time, nourishing itself not just on segregated toy aisles and dismissive remarks, but on the silences in between. Boys and girls, say it with me now: All the colors are for everybody.