Scientists are prone to unconscious sexism proved by science.

In How the sex bias prevails (The Age), Shankar Vedantam describes a randomized, controlled psychology experiment that proves the existence of unconscious sexism in the laboratory:

Madeline Heilman at New York University once conducted an experiment in which she told volunteers about a manager. Some were told, “Subordinates have often described Andrea as someone who is tough yet outgoing and personable. She is known to reward individual contributions and has worked hard to maximise employees’ creativity.”

Other volunteers were told, “Subordinates have often described James as someone who is tough yet outgoing and personable. He is known to reward individual contributions and has worked hard to maximise employees’ creativity.”

The only difference between what the groups were told was that some people thought they were hearing about a leader named Andrea while others thought they were hearing about a leader named James. Heilman asked her volunteers to estimate how likeable Andrea and James were as people. Three-quarters thought James was more likeable than Andrea.

Using a clever experimental design, Heilman also determined that four in five volunteers preferred to have James as their boss. Andrea seemed less likeable merely because she was a woman who happened to be a leader.

The existence of unconscious sexism can be scientifically proved in laboratory experiments. We know that unconscious sexism caused the laboratory volunteers in Heilman’s experiment to find Andrea the manager less likeable than James the manager, because two groups of volunteers, divided at random, reached different conclusions about the likeability of the managers. Since the only thing that varied between the groups was whether they were told the manager was named Andrea or James, we can confidently say the outcome was produced by that single difference.

Vedantam also describes the experiences of two scientists, a trans man and a trans woman, who were treated differently by scientists and academics before and after they transitioned:

Ben Barres did not transition to being a man until he was 50. For much of her early life, Barbara Barres was oblivious to questions of sexism. She would hear Gloria Steinem and other feminists talk about discrimination and wonder, “What’s their problem?” She was no activist; all she wanted was to be a scientist. She was an excellent student. When a school guidance counsellor advised her to set her sights lower than MIT, Barbara ignored him, applied to MIT, and got admitted in 1972.

During a particularly difficult maths seminar at MIT, a professor handed out a quiz with five problems. He gave out the test at 9am, and students had to hand in their answers by midnight. The first four problems were easy, and Barbara knocked them off in short order. But the fifth one was a beauty; it involved writing a computer program where the solution required the program to generate a partial answer, and then loop around to the start in a recursive fashion.

“I remember when the professor handed back the exams, he made this announcement that there were five problems but no one had solved the fifth problem and therefore he only scored the class on the four problems,” Ben recalled. “I got an A. I went to the professor and I said, ‘I solved it.’ He looked at me and he had a look of disdain in his eyes, and he said, ‘You must have had your boyfriend solve it.’ To me, the most amazing thing is that I was indignant. I walked away. I didn’t know what to say. He was in essence accusing me of cheating. I was incensed by that. It did not occur to me for years and years that that was sexism.”

[…]

Ben once gave a presentation at the prestigious Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A friend relayed a comment made by someone in the audience who didn’t know Ben Barres and Barbara Barres were the same person: “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but, then, his work is much better than his sister’s.”

More: How the sex bias prevails (The Age) by Shankar Vedantam

6 Responses to “Scientists are prone to unconscious sexism proved by science.”

  1. Iggles Says:

    Interesting. I would expect sexism to be more noticeable from a male-to-female trans person because as a male they had male privilege — which they lose once transitioning.

    Hearing this story, and see how blatant the sexism is even for one who is not long male.. just wow.

  2. Iggles Says:

    My goodness, there are typos! Here’s what I meant:

    “Interesting. I would expect sexism to be more noticeable for a male-to-female trans person because as a male they had male privilege — which is lost after transitioning.

    Hearing this story, and seeing how blatant sexism is even for one who is no long female.. just wow.”

  3. Lena Says:

    I sent this article to a bunch of male scientist friends (and a few females, one of whom replied that she had once been given a nametag saying ‘Mr.’ at a conference where she was presenting), and they questioned the cultural relativity of the study. Bah, that was not the point. I’m sure the bias is worse in many other countries, but so what? The point is to look at our own perceptions and biases and where they might be subconsiously lurking.

  4. Restructure! Says:

    What country are they from?

  5. The Myth of White Male Geek Rationality « Restructure! Says:

    […] Scientists are prone to unconscious sexism proved by science. by Restructure! […]

  6. links for 2010-09-07 « Embololalia Says:

    […] Scientists are prone to unconscious sexism proved by science. « Restructure! The existence of unconscious sexism can be scientifically proved in laboratory experiments. We know that unconscious sexism caused the laboratory volunteers in Heilman’s experiment to find Andrea the manager less likeable than James the manager, because two groups of volunteers, divided at random, reached different conclusions about the likeability of the managers. Since the only thing that varied between the groups was whether they were told the manager was named Andrea or James, we can confidently say the outcome was produced by that single difference. (tags: science gender cognitive.biases work) […]


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