Study examines implicit and explicit biases on women in workplace
It is hard to imagine an employer today running a workplace where “Mad Men”-style sexism occurs without Internet outrage and lawsuits ensuing, but according to a recent study, a more subtle type of discrimination against women in the workplace is alive and well.
Rutgers-Camden’s Ioana Latu, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, teamed up with researchers Marianne Schmid Mast and Tracie Stewart to uncover the impact that interviewers’ and applicants’ implicit and explicit biases have on women’s job interview outcomes. The study is slated to appear in Psychology of Women Quarterly, according to Rutgers-Camden's "News Now."
Latu explained implicit bias as associations below a person’s level of awareness, so even though an individual may express a positive bias on a conscious level, implicit stereotypes have the power to negatively color perspective and disadvantage certain demographics.
As Latu and her team hypothesized, male interviewers’ implicit associations negatively affected female applicants’ prospects despite any positive explicit stereotypes expressed by the male interviewers.
Groups of two were brought into a lab and were told they would participate in two unrelated studies in order to minimize leading influences on the study’s results. Through a series of reaction-timed tests, the study participants’ implicit stereotypes were measured by how quickly they associated male and female names with words related to competence and incompetence.
“We set up the study to not only to investigate whether those stereotypes exist, but how they really affect women who are in workplace situations or job interviews,” Latu said. “There is research that says if you ask people, they will say that women are more ambitious than in the past — they tend to have more positive work qualities compared to the past. These are explicit stereotypes, but if you actually look at their associations, which tends to not be what they say but what they associate implicitly, you can see more negative stereotypes.”
Women are associated with incompetence and words such as “follower,” Latu said.
“The faster they associate, for example, male with competence or female with incompetence, the more negative their implicit stereotypes are,” she said.
In the second part of the study, interviewers and applicants evaluated the applicants’ performance in a mock interview for a hypothetical managerial position. Male participants with implicit associations of women with incompetence were found to give low performance reviews to female applicants.
Karen Alexander, assistant dean of the Office of Junior and Senior Year Programs for Douglass Residential College, is not surprised by the study’s results, adding that underlying biases against women are not limited to gender.
“I’ve heard many stories from women of various ages about discrimination they experience," Alexander said. "Stereotyping is more of a problem for women of color than it is for white women, so there are layers of stereotypes that come into play … It’s compounded by things like race that intensifies or adds to it."
Alexander, who works with programs that aim to advance women’s careers, pointed out that in addition to stereotypes surrounding women and incompetence, women are subjected to being denied opportunities due to employers’ concerns about future maternity leave.
“Employers might look at a young women they’re potentially hiring for a job and think, ‘She’s probably going to be having a baby, so we don’t want to hire her,'” Alexander said. “They wouldn’t look at a young man (the same way)."
While Alexander acknowledges that it is easy to fall into certain patterns of behavior learned growing up, being aware of stereotypes and also being aware of what is within the bounds of the law can help women overcome forces working against them.
For example, she said, if an employer asks a female applicant about her plans for a family or whether she is married, that employer would be breaking the law because questions of such ilk are discriminatory against the applicant’s gender.
Confidence, she added, can go much further than one might believe.
“(Confidence) is something that young women often do not have in as much abundance as men. One thing that women can do, though, is to be really confident in their own ability and no worry about being forward and … talking about their skills and their accomplishments,” Alexander said.
Strategies to reduce gender bias suggested by Latu and her team include training interviewers to adjust their nonverbal behaviors and strictly assessing performance based on clear evaluation criteria. Positive female role models can also help reduce women’s own implicit stereotypes and empower leadership goals.
In the near future, Latu hopes to develop these strategies and find data to support that not only can stereotypes be changed, but also the way in which they are communicated.