The 2004 movie Crash may justly be regarded as one of the weaker winners of the Academy award for best movie, but it does nonetheless remind us that discrimination can come in many shapes and sizes. It’s worth reminding ourselves of this fact now and then, especially as the popular narrative can make the issue seem very simple and straightforward.
With International Womens Day having been commemorated recently, the narrative can easily form whereby sexual discrimination is the sole preserve of men, but a study published recently highlights the inherent complexity of discrimination.
The study looked in particular at how we perceive ability in maths and science based subjects. Now, of course, there have been numerous studies and reports suggesting that there is no gender difference at all in abilities in this area, but have stereotypes and perceptions kept pace with reality?
The researchers asked participants in the study to hire a candidate for a fictitious job requiring excellent math skills. The selection was a choice between two candidates: one male, and one female. Each candidate was identical in terms of their abilities and qualifications, the only thing the volunteers had to distinguish them was their appearance.
It emerged that male candidates were chosen twice as often as female ones. That might appear superficially as though it’s a standard case of sexual discrimination, but the study found that this discrimination was applied by both male recruiters and female ones.
This bias occurred even when recruiters were given test scores for each candidate explicitly showing that each was practically identical in terms of ability. Insight into this bias was provided by what’s known as an Implicit Association Test.
This kind of test aims to reveal biases between associated items. In the case of this particular study it was testing for a bias against women and math. It highlighted that there were significant biases in this area, which then carried through into recruitment choices, but that there was no real gender difference in who had those incorrect stereotypes.
The study provides an interesting juxtaposition to previous posts I’ve made recently looking at the apparent levels of subconscious discrimination on sites such as AirBnB, Craigslist and even in the venture capital world. This despite the world being as tolerant as it has perhaps ever been, at least in public. Maybe the problem is that these biases exist in our instinctive and intuitive System 1 rather than our more rational and deliberate System 2?Original post