Gender Bias in Psychology
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.
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.
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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.
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).
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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.
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.
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