J. Krueger
Source: J. Krueger

I believe gender is a spectrum, and I fall somewhere between Channing Tatum and Winnie the Pooh. ~ Stephen Colbert

I think my dad is highly gender-neutral. If he doesn't like someone, he'll articulate that. ~ Ivanka Trump

Sex and gender are ubiquitous but difficult concepts. One general issue is that most contemporary cultures emerged from a historically patriarchal context. The historical narrative is male-centric and men tend to dominate most power relations in their prototypical form.

A biological or evolutionary analysis of gender differences and inequality is enlightening but ultimately unsatisfying because of the risk of undermining social progress and gender equality. A social-constructivist narrative is also unsatisfying because it tends to focus on areas of female disadvantage, such as unequal pay, retarded promotions, and the sheer unavailability of certain careers. This narrative, though important, is open to the counter-narrative of male disadvantage in other areas: shorter life spans, less specialized health care, over-representation in high-risk jobs, under-representation in college student populations, pro-mother probate courts, to name a few.[1] A lawmaker in Kentucky has proposed that men seeking a prescription for Viagra must have a note from their (female) spouse. A provocateuse, this lawmaker challenges her male colleagues'’ interference with women’s reproductive rights.   

One perspective on gender is that the issues and problems are most visible in the aggregate, social, and structural plane. It falls to policies and politics to address them. Another perspective is that the issues and problems arise in individual minds and the actions of persons. The issues are psychological in origin and they trickle up to become social problems. According to this perspective, individuals hold a share of the responsibility; they are called upon to recognize their biases and get rid of them.

Years ago, the study of explicit bias was de rigueur, because that was all there was.  Let’s see who expresses sexist views and acts in a sexist manner and let’s educate them; if they don’t respond to education, let’s punish them. Then a Harvard-proclaimed revolution occurred. Verbally expressed attitudes, the revolutionaries announced, are useless because they are easily faked. Knowing whence the winds of change are blowing, sexists (or racist, or other –ist) will profess attitudes of fairness and equality, while secretly holding sexist views and discriminating when opportunity strikes. Worse yet, they might not even know that they are implicitly biased.

The Harvard revolutionaries ended up going after their liberal colleagues, families, and friends, forgetting that ‘out there’ gender-diminishing attitudes continue to flourish on the explicit plane. The Harvard revolution overreached. We now know that the measurement of implicit bias, particularly with the implicit association test, is psychometrically deficient. The test scores are not very reliable and they predict behavior very poorly (Singal, 2017). Besides its psychometric troubles, the implicit revolution may be questioned for its thinly disguised moralism. If you take the implicit association test and it turns out that you’re biased against one gender, you have essentially committed a thought crime. While your inner psychological life may not be condemned per se, the argument would be that even small implicit biases will eventually affect your behavior and make you hurt those whom you dislike in your heart. Thought crimes, George Orwell oracled, cannot be concealed forever. You are guilty before committing the crime; you will be guilty of a crime that  you might never commit.

As the fortunes of the implicit bias industry are declining, let us remember 3 basic points about gender, points that have more solid scientific support.

Social categorization

Social categorization happens. It is inevitable. A mind that doesn’t categorize cannot learn. Any type of inductive inference requires categorization; without it, we would not know what to generalize to, that is, we’d have no basis for generalization at all, which means we wouldn’t be able to learn anything.

Sex and gender are salient and convenient categories. Or are they? One challenge is the existence of ambiguous cases and the demand for extra categories. These efforts may be well intentioned but at the limit, they well spell the breakdown of any gender-based categorization. At the limit (and I am pointing this out by way of thought experiment), each person will remain uncategorized or rather form a category of one. One of the psychological casualties of this end state would be the person’s inability to have a gender-based social identity (there would only be a personal identity), and there could be no fight for gender equality. But again, categorization is obligatory; it will continue.

One byproduct of categorization is accentuation, which comprises contrast and assimilation effects. Gender differences are overestimated and personal differences within gender are underestimated. The latter effect was nicely demonstrated years ago in the “who-said-what” paradigm (Taylor, Fiske, & Etcoff, 1978). When you witness a discussion group of men and women and later try to recall who said what, you will likely confuse men’s points with one another and women’s points with one another rather than confuse men’s with women’s points or vice versa. In other words, gender is a potent person characteristic that can aid memory and lead to predictable errors at the same time.  

Stereotype content

Person perception and hence social stereotypes are multi-dimensional. A minimal way of capturing the contents of person or group descriptions is along the two dimensions of warmth (or communion or morality) and competence (or agency or ability). Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu (2002) found that a diverse set of social groups fell into 5 clusters in this 2-dimensional space. Both men and women were described positively, but men were seen as more competent, and women were seen as warmer. There is no gross sexism in these results when considering that the poor and the homeless were seen as very low on both dimensions. Yet, one can see how the differences that do exist in perceptions of competence create barriers for women in professional contexts.

Where do these perceived differences come from? Again, biology and evolution provide a basis, and so does socialization and the roles in which women and men find themselves. Eagly (e.g., Eagly & Wood, 1999) has argued that women find themselves disproportionately in roles requiring nurturing and communal behavior, whereas men find themselves in roles requiring assertive and agentic behavior. Inasmuch as women and men respect these norms, they will be seen as possessing the corresponding attributes.

Stereotyping individuals

Once group stereotypes are in place, how are they applied to individuals? When the person is a stranger, a perceiver might (and perhaps ‘should’) apply the stereotype. The general principles of induction impel this sort of stereotype application. Years ago, I studied the stereotype of men being more aggressive than women (Krueger & Rothbart, 1988). Consistent with this stereotype, respondents rated an unknown man as more aggressive than an unknown woman. When single acts of aggressive behavior, from yelling to hitting, were added to the description, the gender effect persisted. A yelling or hitting man was rated as more aggressive than a yelling or hitting woman. Eventually, though, the behavioral information overwhelmed the gender stereotype. If someone was described as consistently or frequently yelling or hitting, this person was seen as equally aggressive whether male or female.  

We learned from this study that the integration of category information (gender) and personal information (behavior) basically works. Things get tricky when identical behaviors get perceived differently depending on the gender and role context. Women face a difficult situation when expectations regarding professional leaders conflict with expectations regarding women. Leaders are conventionally described in agentic, and thus male, terms, which clashes with the perception of women as communal. Eagly & Carli (2007) cited Kim Campbell, who was the Prime Minister of Canada in 1993, as saying;

I don’t have a traditionally female way of speaking….I’m quite assertive. If I didn’t speak the way I do, I wouldn’t have been seen as a leader. But my way of speaking may have grated on people who were not used to hearing it from a woman. It was the right way for a leader to speak, but it wasn’t the right way for a woman to speak. It goes against type.

Eagly & Carli speculated that “perhaps this is why respondents in one study characterized the group “successful female managers” as more deceitful, pushy, selfish, and abrasive than “successful male managers.” In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, people suspect that such highly effective women must not be very likable or nice.”

Eagly & Carli offered a host of promising interventions for the organizational and the personal level. They acknowledged that some biases may be unconscious or ‘implicit.’ Yet, their approach is not moralistic. One lesson coming from their work is that it might not be necessary for stereotypes of men and women to change. Instead, the stereotype of the successful leader might.

[1] FeldmanHall et al. (2016) showed that the prohibition against harming a man is much weaker than the prohibition against harming a woman. Men are more readily sacrificed for a social good than are women, and people of both sexes are less willing to pay so that a man is spared pain.

Eagly, A. H., & Carli, L. L. (2007, September). Women and the labyrinth of leadership. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2007/09/women-and-the-labyrinth-of-leadership#article-top

Eagly, A. H., & Wood, W. (1999). The origins of sex differences in human behavior: Evolved dispositions versus social roles. American Psychologist, 54, 408-423.

FeldmanHall, O., Dalgleish, T., Evans, D., Navrady, L., Tedeschi, E., & Mobbs, D. (2016). Moral chivalry: Gender and harm sensitivity predict costly altruism. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7, 542-551.

Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J. C., Glick, P., & Xu J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: Competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 878-902.

Krueger, J., & Rothbart, M. (1988). Use of categorical and individuating information in making inferences about personality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 187-195.

Singal, J. (11 January, 2017). Psychology’s favorite tool for measuring racism isn’t up to the job. New York Times Magazine. http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/01/psychologys-racism-measuring-tool-i...

Taylor, S. E., Fiske, S. T., & Etcoff, N. L., & Ruderman, A. J. (1978). Categorical and contextual bases of person memory and stereotyping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 778-793.

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