Gender Bias in Psychology

Updated on September 8, 2018

The Origins of Psychology and Gender Bias

Wilhelm Wundt (1832 - 1920) was the first to call himself a psychologist and believed that all aspects of nature can be studied scientifically; his aim was to study the structure of the human mind and his approach was later referred to as structuralism.

This revolutionary movement encouraged the rest of the world to examine and research the world of psychology, however, the 19th century was extremely patriarchal. Women were not allowed to vote and educational opportunities were almost non-existent. As a result, psychology has spent the majority of its existence male-dominated and gender-biased, with research methods and results being influenced by stereotypes and misogyny.

Androcentrism can lead to two different types of bias: alpha bias and beta bias.

Wilhelm Wundt
Wilhelm Wundt | Source

Alpha Bias

Alpha bias in an experiment exaggerates the differences between men and women - making one seem 'better' than the other. Usually, women are devalued whilst men are presented as superior to them.

For example, Freud's research was conducted during the 19th century where a patriarchal society influenced people's views on women and consequently Freud's theories. Men were more powerful and educated than women so were perceived as superior, and he regarded femininity as a failed form of masculinity. Not only were these ideas influenced by a misogynistic culture, but they also helped to reinforce sexism and negative stereotypes.

However, alpha bias does not always occur this way round. Sometimes, gender differences are exaggerated but it is women who have been given value, this is called reverse alpha bias. For example, Cornwell et al found that women are better learners because they are more attentive, flexible and organised.

Sigmund Freud believed women are morally inferior because they have weaker identification with their mothers
Sigmund Freud believed women are morally inferior because they have weaker identification with their mothers | Source

Beta Bias

In contrast to alpha bias, beta bias minimises or ignores differences between genders. In this situation, researchers assume that what is true for men must also be true for women - which isn't always the case.

An example of this is research on the fight or flight response. Biological studies were used for this and due to a variation of hormone levels, female animals were usually not tested on as it made research more difficult. This means that the majority of research into the fight or flight response has been conducted on only male samples, yet the findings are generalised to all people regardless of gender. When stressed or scared, it was a universal belief that one would fight or run away. However, Shelly Taylor challenged this idea. Taylor provided evidence of a 'tend and befriend' response in women. Evolutionary speaking, it wouldn't make sense for a woman to fight or run away as it increases the risk of their offspring being in danger. So instead, females would protect themselves and their offspring through nurturing behaviours (tend) and form alliances with other women for protection (befriend). It is argued the greater release of oxytocin (also called the 'love hormone') in women influences this response as it induces relaxation and reduces fearfulness.

For decades the fight or flight response was considered universal and as a result of beta bias, a female response to stress was ignored. This example also shows us how there are differences between men and women but this does not make either one any 'better' or 'superior'.

Many such as Hare-Mustin and Marecek, argue that an attempt to strive for equality completely disregards any special needs men or women may require due to their gender. Of course, equal rights is essential when striving for a fair and just society but it is also important to recognise gender differences.

Source

Gender Bias and Research Methods

The way an experimenter treats their participants can have a huge effect on the results of the study. This is why experiments have standardised procedures to control as many variables as possible that could interfere with the results. Rosenthal discovered that male experimenters were more friendly and encouraging to female participants than male ones. The male participants ended up achieving lower scores than the females. The findings suggest that in that particular area of study women perform better than men, however, the female participants were treated differently and were even encouraged. This may have skewed the results as being more friendly towards the female participants could be why they performed better.

A limitation of experiments in lab conditions is that people may alter their behaviour when not in a realistic setting. Some argue that lab settings disadvantage women as these conditions tell the researcher very little about their behaviour in the real world. One study found that women are not as good at leading as men. However, Eagly and Johnson found that this may be the case in lab conditions, but in realistic environments, women presented similar levels of leadership skill as men. There is also an argument regarding leadership methods. Perhaps women do not lead the same way as men, but this doesn't mean they are worse leaders. Good leadership skills in male leaders may be different from the skills used by female leaders, maybe both are good leaders but use different methods. If this is the case, research on leadership skills is likely to only focus on male leadership methods rather than female. Often, women have to be seen as men to be heard. Take for instance Maragret Thatcher, as time passed and she worked her way up to the position of Prime Minister, she began to change her mannerisms and voice (which became deeper in pitch).

Margaret Thatcher in the White House Cabinet Room - notice the number of men compared to women?
Margaret Thatcher in the White House Cabinet Room - notice the number of men compared to women? | Source

To Conclude

Androcentrism leads to alpha and beta bias. Alpha bias exaggerates gender differences and often puts men in a better light than women. Beta bias minimises gender differences which can lead to a lack of research into female behaviours thus ignoring gender differences altogether.

It may be very difficult to achieve a completely unbiased approach to experimentation as the experimenter's behaviour towards different genders may be a subconscious act. Men and women are different so cannot always be given the same explanations for behaviour as this wouldn't be an accurate generalisation.

References

I am not a professional, I am studying year two of psychology A level from the 'AQA Psychology A level' textbook written by Cara Flanagan and Mike Cardwell. (link below)


© 2018 Angel Harper

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    • Miebakagh57 profile image

      Miebakagh Fiberesima 

      10 days ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

      Hello, Angel, well done.

      You did a good research at this stage of your study.

      Yes, it does not make sense for a woman to fight and flight.

      Look at the mother hen. Did she does that? The answer is negative. Thank you.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      10 days ago from USA

      I’m an I/O psychologist with an interest in fairness perceptions. I found your summary here interesting as it touches on so many areas in psychology, from research methods to Freud to social psych. Well done.

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