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Gender Bias in Psychology

Angel is currently studying for her A-levels (English, Sociology and Psychology) in the hopes of going to university next year.

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

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 (2013) found that women are better learners because they are more attentive, flexible and organised. These results may stem from stereotypes that men are not attentive or organised, it also ignores the possibility that men and women learn in different ways, perhaps our definition of a 'good learner' is based purely on female attributes.

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

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.

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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 Margaret 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?

The Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Men

David Benatar writes in his book, 'The Second Sexism' that discrimination against men is often more obvious but also overlooked. He argues that due to stereotypes and traditional gender norms, cases of male domestic violence or sexual abuse are often overlooked due to the assumption that men are tougher and fearless. Benatar refers to a study which found that "clinical psychologists were more likely to hypothesise sexual assault in females than males". This poses as an extremely damaging threat to male victims who are seeking professional help, who may be denied as a result of gender bias.

Male suicide is referred to as a "silent epidemic" because although male suicide rates are higher than female, there is very little attention drawn to this issue. According to Baffour, the difference in suicide rates between men and women may be a result of a societal expectation for men to "internalise their feelings" which "could inhibit them from reaching out for help". This issue stems from a structural assumption about masculine traits and damages mental health as a consequence.

To Conclude

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

Societal assumptions about gender can impact how men and women are treated, with many studies assuming that men and women will behave in the same way. Men face unfair stereotyping which makes victims of abuse struggle to be heard.

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.


Cardwell, M., Flanagan, C. (2016) Psychology A level The Complete Companion Student Book fourth edition. Published by Oxford University Press, United Kingdom.

© 2018 Angel Harper


Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on August 06, 2019:

Angel . . .very professional and thorough. Great work. Loved the intricate way that you put your thoughts into a discipline that most of us do not have. I am talking about me, not you.

I ask you to keep up the great work.

Marcreally on December 02, 2018:

I do apologise Angel.

My comments below were harsh.

The situation is precisely as you identified in your addition to the article.

That there is a reluctance to accept that men can be victims of prolonged abuse.

This leads to further anxiety and depression due to the male being made to feel weak.

It also plays into the hands of a manipulative spouse as it mitigates and justifies her behaviour.

Perhaps a bright, motivated, young aspiring psychologist such as yourself might be able to change that paradigm one day.

I hope so.

Angel Harper (author) on November 30, 2018:

Marceally, You're right, and I apologise sincerely. My article only talks about bias against women and I completely ignore bias against men. My aim was to bring awareness to gender bias but I failed, but I really hope I can try to make amends- I will be revising my article and including instances of male bias in psychology. Once again, I'm sorry for being so careless.

Marcreally on November 30, 2018:

I have seen 5 (five) psychologists prior to the 6th who my wife and I are currently seeing for marital issues attributable to my wife having engaged (by her own admission) in psychological and emotional bullying and manipulation for the last 30 years.

The first 5 refused to believe that a male could be the victim of spousal abuse.

Your article is a joke.

The gender bias is in favour of females.

3 of them admitted that if the “wife” came to them telling my story their response would’ve been different.

I was yelled at and abused by one of them.

On the whole your “profession” is amateurish, lazy and based on non verifiable, quantifiable or qualifiable gibberish.

You are a perfect example of how unprofessional and subjective a psychologist can be.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 23, 2018:

Hi, Angel, yes it was not known for long. This is because women were for long relegated to the background due to the believe that men are superior to women in strength. But mental issues are different.

Here I recalled many years ago at the final exam of the whole primary school I attended, a girl in class 6 make first place. I was in class 3 then. She beat the boys! Strength is strength, where men can excel. Thank you.

Angel Harper (author) on September 21, 2018:

Miebakagh Fiberesima, thank you for the comment! It's true that it doesn't make sense evolutionary speaking for a woman to fight or flee, it's just shocking that it went unknown for so long!!

Angel Harper (author) on September 21, 2018:

FlourishAnyway thank you so much! It's encouraging to hear that from a professional. I am really interested in gender studies and although I'm working through my curriculum at the moment, I hope to write more about it later.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 08, 2018:

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 from USA on September 08, 2018:

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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