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Blog

The cost of stereotypes

By Margaret Harris

When a 2012 study showed that scientists subconsciously favour male students over females when assessing their employability as early-career researchers, it generated plenty of debate – not least among women, who were, according to the study, just as likely to be biased as the men were.

Some of these discussions got rather overheated, but one cogent criticism of the study did emerge.  Roughly, it was this: might the scientists’ preference for men over equally well-qualified women be a rational response to the fact that, because of various barriers, women in science often need to be better than their male counterparts in order to have an equal chance of success?

The question was an awkward one, since it implied that women in science could be caught in a vicious circle, with the negative effects of bias in the workplace making it “rational” to be biased in hiring (and, in turn, making such workplace bias more likely to persist).  However, a new study appears to rule out this argument by finding similar patterns of hiring bias against women even when the “job” is an arithmetical task that, on average, women and men perform equally well.


In their study, Ernesto Reuben, Paola Sapienza and Luigi Zingales examined the effects of gender stereotypes in an artificial market where male and female “employers” were presented with male–female pairs of “candidates” and asked who they would hire to complete an arithmetical task.  When employers had no information about the candidates other than their appearance, they chose the man 66% of the time (out of 507 male–female pairs).  When, in a second experiment, employers also heard the candidates’ self-reported performance on a previous, similar arithmetical task, they still picked the man 66% of the time – even though in around half of the 160 male–female pairs, the woman had outscored the man. When the researchers themselves informed employers about candidates’ past performance, the bias was smaller, but employers still hired the man 57% of the time (out of 265 pairs).

The researchers also showed that in some circumstances, employers’ biased hiring decisions correlated with their pre-existing negative views of women and mathematics, as measured by an Implicit Association Test (IAT).  Male and female employers who held stereotypically negative views about women’s mathematical abilities (IAT scores > 0) were more likely to predict that male candidates would outperform females on the second task if they were given (a) no information or (b) only self-reported information about the candidates’ past performance.

This correlation vanished when past-performance information came from the researchers themselves, suggesting that “stereotypes did not seem to affect [employers’ decisions] when the information was provided by a neutral third party”. However, even with good, neutral information, employers still chose female candidates less often than male ones: in one sub-experiment involving 265 hiring decisions, employers chose a lower-performing male over a higher-performing female a whopping 82.7% of the time.

Based on these results, the researchers concluded that “stereotypes do indeed affect the demand for women in mathematics-related tasks, regardless of quality considerations”.

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3 comments

  1. M. Asghar

    These stereotypes – can the author of the writeup explain as to how and from where they rise?

  2. M Asghar – literature and science are full of references to sexism. You have only to google for it. Start here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexism

    The specific idea that women are worse than men at arithmetic rises and falls with the times. In general, women have lower status than men and so high-status ideas are considered to be too hard for women. 150 years ago, literature and poetry were higher in status than mathematics, so women were considered to be able to do math, but not literature. Now that we are in the age of technology, it’s the other way around.

    Standardized tests sometimes bear this out. This is for two reasons. First of all, there is some evidence that women are better than men at some forms of spacial awareness and worse at others. Guess which form is tested for? Second of all, most people reflect prejudice in their performance. When reminded of a negative prejudice, they do worse. When reminded of a positive prejudice, they do better. This is all well-known in the literature. If you are genuinely interested you can find it easily.

  3. ASIWEL

    You know, this sort of thing reflects worst on the recruiter or decision maker (or the researchers) than on gender group applicants. Common knowledge (IMO – research goes both ways and varies by GPA or achievement test scores or vocational aspiration, etc.) girls tend to do better than boys in elementary and into middle school (for a variety of reasons – maturation rate is often cited). Today, that gender gap frequently persists into high school and in college (again for a variety of reasons – vocational aspiration and awareness are often cited). If you are just “judging candidates,” what ethnicity, gender, orientation, etc., have to do with that is beyond me. You would/should pick the best qualified. But if you are using other considerations (e.g., worker flexibility, health issues, how this person “fits” your “culture,” who knows what else – then you are hiring “who you like best.” This sort of thing is a “preference problem,” not an “ability problem.” “Preference” is not necessarily another name for “discrimination”, though perception is required for both.

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