Are Gender and Rationality Linked in Our Minds?

New research suggests they are.

Posted Nov 15, 2019

It's no secret that there are gender disparities in pay, professional opportunities, fields of study, household labor, and more. Men tend to earn more than women; men tend to advance to higher ranks in their professions than women; and men tend to do less housework than women. But why?

Avery Evans/Unsplash
Source: Avery Evans/Unsplash

One contention, long argued for by various feminist philosophers, is that part of the explanation is that the notions of rationality and reason are associated with men, while the notions of feeling and emotion are associated with women. Thus, men are more readily accepted in professions and fields of study taken to require logic, reasoning, and brilliance; women are more readily accepted in professions and fields of study taken to require warmth, emotional sensitivity, and intuition. The disparities follow, because disciplines in the first, stereotypically-male category are normally afforded higher pay, greater esteem, and occur outside of the home.

Of course, this contention has not been universally accepted. But a recently published set of studies seeks to put this philosophical hypothesis to the test using the tools of cognitive psychology.

The results suggest, as the title of the paper puts it, that the concept of rationality is gendered.

Here is how the authors characterize the three studies they report:

To summarize our empirical program of research, Study 1a uses the Implicit Association Test (IAT: Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998) as well as explicit measures to test the hypothesis that participants preferentially associate male with thinking and female with feeling. Study 1b uses a modified IAT procedure to decompose that relative inquiry into independent associations between male and thinking more than feeling between female and feeling more than thinking. Study 2 provides a conceptual replication again using explicit measures as well as an alternative implicit measure, a priming procedure, to investigate whether the rapid presentation of photographs of men (women) make concepts related to thinking (feeling) more accessible, influencing ostensibly unrelated semantic judgments. Finally, Study 3 explores the consequences of these gendered associations through a pre-registered investigation of whether these explicit or implicit associations relate to men and women’s interest in and estimates of the relative prevalence of men and women in several academic disciplines. Taken together, these results provide evidence that rationality is semantically gendered at the level of basic conceptual associations, and that these associations could be consequential for individual interest in and perceptions of various professional disciplines.

The authors note some interesting nuances and limitations of their results. For example, they found that women exhibited some implicit-explicit ambivalence, "rejecting strong notions of gendered rationality in their self-reports but nonetheless showing robust evidence of male-reason and female-emotion associations at the implicit level." They also note that men's explicit gender stereotypes appear to be stronger. This finding is important, they claim, because one who explicitly endorses a stereotype may be less likely to want to mitigate its effects on real-world decisions. The "may" here is important, as they claim, further, that one reason their findings are not undermined by recent critiques of the implicit bias literature is because they were mainly out to "document the widespread presence of a subtle but widely held form of cultural stereotype linking rationality to gender, independent of its role in decision making or its locus within the individual versus the culture." It would be interesting to investigate, in future work, potential links between the associations found in these studies and real-world decision making.

Another fruitful avenue for further inquiry in this area would be to investigate the question of causation. The authors note that their results "complement recent work by past researchers interested in how gender stereotypes relate to occupational stereotypes as well as occupational choices" but do not allow us to determine whether the association of men with reason contributes by "buttressing" or "underlying" gender disparities in relevant fields. Anyone interested in mitigating and combating these gender disparities should be interested to find out which it is. 

In sum, these findings show the fruits of putting philosophical hypotheses to the empirical test, and they provide some empirical support for the longstanding contention that our conception of rationality encodes gendered assumptions. I, for one, look forward to seeing where this work leads.