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Gender Bias: The Role of Unconscious Prejudice in Every day Society

Feminism is a set of social movements that aim to define and establish the political, economic, personal, and social equality of all genders. We live in a world where being female or being male can lead you to have a completely different life, because of different resources available and power relationships. Even if it is one of the most known ideologies around, we are not always aware of these dissimilarities in opportunities, and even less aware of the reasons behind them. That is why, on the 25th of February of 2021, we decided to host an event to explore the various implicit gender biases that are embedded in our society. 

Who are the speakers?

            We invited Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University Susan Tufts Fiske and Clinical Psychologist Maddalena Marini to give us a proper introduction to gender biases present both in the workplace and in our houses and then some insights about how they manifest, especially implicitly. 

Susan T. Fiske investigates social cognition, especially stereotypes and prejudices, culturally, interpersonally, and neuro-scientifically. She holds a PhD in Social Psychology at Harvard University. In particular, her research addresses how stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are encouraged or discouraged by social relationships, such as cooperation, competition, and power.

Maddalena Marini is interested in factors that influence our unconscious behaviors and the conditions under which they can be malleable. She has a PhD in Neuroscience at Harvard University, enrolled in the Order of Psychologists of Emilia-Romagna and is a member of the Ferrarese Society of Psychology. She is also a professor of Psychology and Neuropsychology for the Oxbridge Academic Programs at Harvard and Oxford. In addition, she has been a researcher for the Center for Translational Neurophysiology at Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia of Ferrara for the Project Implicit. In her research, she used different techniques, including behavioral paradigms, event-related potentials (ERPs) and non-invasive brain stimulation.

What are gender biases and what is ambivalent sexism?

            Our first speaker, Professor Fiske, introduced us to the concept of gender biases conceived as ambivalent biases. First of all, she explained to us that not all prejudices have the same visibility – some individuals may act in a more hateful and aggressive way towards the prejudiced groups, while others show it unconsciously in their actions and thoughts. Therefore, subliminally and automatically, different categories of people are perceived in distinctive ways. With regards to gender, generally, women are seen as warmer, while men as more competent. The reason why this idea is still instilled in our mindsets even nowadays is because, when you do not think about the implications, both these traits are seen as positive, and so not worth being discussed any further. However, when you think more deeply about it, you see that women are liked whereas men are respected. This notion is so embedded in our society that they are difficult to recognize and even more difficult not to practise.

Moreover, as mentioned before, there is an ambivalence in these attitudes: there is a benevolent sexism, that has a positive approach toward women who comply with the stereotypical ideal femininity, and an hostile one, that has a negative and aggressive approach toward women who compete with men, especially in the workplace. In particular, Susan T. Fiske’s theory of ambivalent sexism states that men and women’s intimate interdependence, coupled with men’s average status advantage, requires incentives for women to cooperate (benevolent sexism) and punishment for women who resist (hostile sexism). Both men and women can endorse hostile sexism and benevolent sexism, as the people that are happy in it discourage women from empowering themselves, even though men on average score higher than women, especially on hostile sexism. Unfortunately, she states, sexism is a stubborn bias to get rid of, as not everyone is willing to rearrange their whole lives, being it very present both in the workplace and in households.

Case study: gender bias in STEM

Maddalena Marini, our event’s second guest, presented us a case study she conducted with Harvard professors Mahzarin Banaji and Alvaro Pascual-Leone about implicit gender biases in the STEM faculty. The test used was called Implicit Association Test (IAT): it is an assessment in the field of social psychology intended to detect the strength of a person’s subconscious association between mental representations of objects (concepts) in memory.

It is commonly applied to assess implicit stereotypes held by test subjects – in this case, it was applied to women and men belonging in either liberal arts and IT sciences. While explicitly almost everyone would say that both genders can be associated equally with the two subjects, the test shows otherwise. The IAT requires that users rapidly categorize two target concepts with an attribute (for us the concepts “male” and “female” with the attributes “liberal arts” and “IT sciences”), such that easier pairings (faster responses) are interpreted as more strongly associated in memory than difficult pairings (slower responses). The sets “female-liberal arts” and “male-IT sciences” took significantly less time to be created than their opposites, thereby showing this implicit bias.

This has also unconscious consequences on behaviour, as it impacts hiring decisions, promotions, women representation in STEM and the difference in male and female in science and math achievements, having different expectations upon them. It is not only STEM, however: in general, women are less associated with the concepts of career and brightness, and so are seen as less intelligent and competent.

This same test was carried out with different combinations of concepts and attributes – among them, the combination between the concepts “males” and “females” with the attribute of sex. It has uncovered the implicit correlation between “female” (both in casual and professional settings) and “sex” present in the minds of the majority of the population, regardless of their gender and sexual attraction, that led to the idea of sexual objectification of women.

How can we change?

            The event finished off with our speaker giving us suggestions on how we may overcome these biases. Above all, the general population needs to be properly educated on them and to have a genuine desire to change. Among the methods used to fight against sexism, the most effective are deemed to be: firsthand research to counter stereotypical information, habit breaking intervention to raise awareness and make consequences of our actual behaviour more known, non-invasive brain stimulation and virtual reality, to present life in the perspective of others. All these practises can also be applied to fight different biases, such as racism and elitism, since all of them, even if stubborn, are still malleable and able to be changed.

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