This month’s Impact magazine features an article I wrote about gender stereotypes in the market research industry. The article was inspired by a study we did for Women In Research (in collaboration with the Market Research Society) to understand nonconscious gender perceptions in the market research industry through a wide-scale experiment.
As there is limited space in a magazine, I couldn’t share as much of the results as I would have liked, so I wanted to write a post to complement the print article (with a couple of paragraphs repeated so that this post makes sense to readers who have not yet seen the print article or are from other industries). I also received a surprising amount of feedback about the methodology from researchers so I felt it would be good to provide more detail about that we well. I’ll start by explaining what we actually did, followed by the reasons why. I will also explain some of the specific biases we are naturally susceptible to, and how they influence our impressions of other people. I’ll then include snapshots of some of the results and conclude with some further reading.
What we did
A survey invitation was sent to all MRS members, yielding 440 responses (37% male/63% female). Over half of the sample had worked in the industry over 15 years, and were therefore at least director level with both quantitative and qualitative experience. Two-thirds came from agency side, with a relatively balanced split between different sized agencies.
Some of the feedback I received was concerned that we biased the results by mentioning Women in Research on the landing page, and therefore giving away the purpose of the research. That point is very valid, but in this case it would not have been fair to not disclose the organisation that was mainly driving the initiative (WIRe, MRS kindly agreed to partner with them) and also because the purpose would have revealed itself sooner or later anyway. We were fully aware of this and actually it was not a concern to us if it made gender perceptions and/or discrimination more salient in people’s minds – quite the opposite. The reason for that is that this study was more an experiment than a traditional survey, and as is typical of psychological experiments, we did not want to reveal this upfront which has subsequently caused some confusion with many people.
In the first stage we showed people 2 CVs that were meticulously anonymised from real CVs provided by recruitment agency Hasson Associates. Each respondent saw one male and one female CV (Simon/Susan Taylor/Adams) with the order of genders and CVs randomised, and was asked to rate them on a number of dimensions.
Some of those who sent me feedback felt that the CV did not give them enough information to rate them on e.g. ease of working with, and felt it was difficult to give an opinion. This exercise was actually modelled on a relatively well known case study from Columbia Business School called the Heidi/Howard case where they asked students to read a CV for an entrepreneur called Heidi or for an entrepreneur called Howard, and subsequently rate them on several dimensions. What they found was that “students rated Heidi as highly competent and effective as Howard, but they evaluated her as unlikeable and selfish, and would not have wanted to hire her or work with her.” (More on this and similar work on the likability-competence dilemma women have here.) I agree that perhaps both the original and our version could have been designed better, but I felt it was nonetheless interesting to replicate such a well known case study in our industry. At least in the original case, people had very strong feelings about the person based on their CV, but I appreciate that they did so in a different situation than in the context of a survey like this. Nevertheless, this question worked as an explicit benchmark, demonstrating a rational response, as the female candidate received more favourable ratings across the board.
In the second stage, we showed respondents phrases that might appear in a recruitment agency’s cover letter of a candidate (based on real examples provided by Hasson Associates) and asked them to first person, in absence of other information, they would want to interview for a job, followed a task where they had to choose whether a phrase was more likely to describe a male or a female candidate. These were formulated to test various hypotheses of whether certain behaviours, skills, attributes and achievements were more credible for either gender, and also to understand how they might impact one’s likelihood to get invited to an interview. While the second part of this stage is more directly linked to gender perceptions, the data also gives us interesting and useful insights into what is valued by employers.
More on the likeability-competence dilemma and other issues with gendered behaviour norms here:
- The Feminine Critique
- Women’s Likeability – Competence Dilemma: Overcoming the Backlash Effect
- Are Successful Women Really Less Likable Than Successful Men?
- The Likability Problem
- Leader Gender Bias
In the third stage, we drilled down to specific words and asked respondents in which word would be more positive to appear in a performance review, followed by a task to choose whether a word would be more likely to appear in Simon or Susan’s review.
There is a fair amount of academic research that suggests most people have at least some level of association for different words with specific genders which affects both men and women. There’s also plenty of research supporting the idea that internalised stereotypes can influence both genders’ behaviour and particularly performance: for example, countries with high gender inequality girls tend to do worse in math than boys, whereas the reverse is true in countries with low inequality. In fact, there’s also evidence that simply priming people by making their gender (or race) salient can influence their performance in intellectual tasks so it’s quite a complex issue with widespread societal consequences.
More on gendered language use and social norms here:
- The abrasiveness trap: High-achieving men and women are described differently in reviews
- Is the Professor Bossy or Brilliant? Much Depends on Gender
- The way we talk about gender can make a big difference
- How women undermine themselves with words
Why we did it
Despite the extensive academic research supporting these ideas, I felt it was important to ground them in our own context – even if this research is not flawless, it’s at least something we can start a conversation with and I was personally very excited to see the results as I feel passionately about appreciating everyone as who they are without the need to factor in their gender. I’m still sometimes just as biased myself though – it’s only human, and we can’t really help it however much we’d like.
At the beginning of the article I mention this riddle which is designed to reveal gender stereotypes:
A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital and just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!”
Some people were also concerned that was it was easy for people to answer tactically when they (assumed they) had figured out the research. That point is very valid that it was indeed aimed at understanding stereotypes, but not necessarily in the way that some people have thought. Stereotypes affect people’s decision making in many subtle ways – including the stereotypes women hold of themselves, which were of particular interest to us as this research was conducted on the back of conversations at the previous WIRe event about the impostor syndrome and especially how women sometimes hold themselves back – which is in fact part of what we found.
It’s also not simply a question of discrimination against women like some people have assumed: these stereotypes can also limit men in what behaviour is perceived to be acceptable for them. If, for example, being described creative is more associated with women than men, then that’s also an issue for a man who is, in fact, more creative. However, the first step to taking action in any direction or trying to make a difference is to understand what exactly is it that we are dealing with.
The short-cuts we use to judge people
The truth is that we are all cognitive misers who like to preserve mental energy and processing capacity who only spend it when we really have to – not because we are lazy, but because there is simply too much going on for our brains to handle it. The limitations of our minds mean that all human thought is a trade-off between speed and accuracy, and most often we choose speed because that kept our ancestors out of lions’ mouths on the savannah. While we have now mostly accepted that we have fast and slow ways of thinking about brands, we can also apply it to how we perceive people.
In the first stage, our automatic, effortless System 1 uses heuristics and other mental shortcuts to grasp the essence of whatever we are presented with. Just like we are unaware of these shortcuts when thinking about brands, we are also not aware of how they alter the way we perceive and interpret information about people before ever realising it. Unfortunately, research suggests that we don’t even need to believe in a stereotype for it to affect our thinking – they happen automatically if we are simply aware of them. The second stage of perceiving people where we correct and suppress our prejudices is much more effortful and therefore ultimately the kingdom of System 2 which the cognitive miser would ultimately prefer to avoid altogether.
The cognitive miser in us loves certain short cuts in particular when it is evaluating people. First impressions count because the information we get about someone early on when observing them affects our perception of them more than any information we get later on (the primacy effect). These interpretations can be hard to change because we have a tendency to reconcile the psychological pain conflicting beliefs cause us by changing them (cognitive dissonance). Unfortunately, first impressions are usually out of own hands because confirmation bias filters our perception to see in others what we already expect to see. Stereotypes are one type of filter: by categorising things they ease the load on our minds and help us make sense of the world. They are beliefs about categories of people – some positive, some negative – that are often more like probabilities based on our experiences: on average, we’ve seen more women with long hair then men, so a stereotypical woman has longer hair than a man.
Just like we can’t help but make snap judgments about brands and products, we automatically make snap judgments about people whether we like it or not. And just like it’s not humanly possible to stop System 1 thinking altogether, we also can’t stop being influenced by stereotypes even if we wanted to – they are our way of making sense of the world. Thinking that we are immune from it only makes us more likely to fall prey to it, so our best chance is to accept it. But before that, we need to be aware of the prejudices we have.
It was clear from the research that market researchers are a very enlightened bunch when it comes to gender perceptions, and unlike many industries qualities associated with women are also ones that we value. While this is great news for diversity, we shouldn’t lull ourselves into a false sense of security that gender equality is not a challenge for us: both men and women all put themselves and each other in clear boxes. These perceptions and labels can make us miss both existing talent inside our companies as well as when we are recruiting for new people. Stereotypes can indeed be valuable guides in navigating a complex world, but we should not ourselves become blinkered.
Diving into the results
These charts are copied from the presentation at this fall’s Women in Research event – some quality issues emerged when moving screenshots to blog. There is, of course, even more data than this -if you are interested in anything specific, please drop me a note and I’ll dig it out!
Some further reading
Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden biases of good people. Delacorte Press.
Devine, P. G. (1989). Stereotypes and prejudice: their automatic and controlled components. Journal of personality and social psychology, 56(1), 5.
Halvorson, H. G. (2015) No One Understands You And What To Do About It. Cambridge: Harvard Business Review Press.
Mueller, J. S., Goncalo, J. A., & Kamdar, D. (2011). Recognizing creative leadership: Can creative idea expression negatively relate to perceptions of leadership potential?. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(2), 494-498.
Pratkanis, A. R. (1988). The attitude heuristic and selective fact identification.British journal of social psychology, 27(3), 257-263.
Steele, C. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: And other clues to how stereotypes affect us (issues of our time). WW Norton & Company.