Unconscious bias: What we all should know about implicit ageism and sexism

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In this post I take a look at how our behaviour can be influenced in ways that we are not aware. For example, did you know that if you’re a woman, viewing images that reinforce gender stereotypes can reduce your sense of confidence in being able to carry out a task that is seen as masculine-related? Or that if you are a man you’re more likely to be selected for interview and be offered a job in the science disciplines?
You might think that the explanation for both of these examples relates to gender stereotypes, and you would be right. However, we have to dig a little deeper as there is more to this than meets the eye. I’m talking about unconscious (or implicit) biases.
Social psychologists have paid a lot of attention to the ways that our beliefs can influence our feelings and behaviours towards people without us knowing that this is happening. They are unconscious biases that we hold, and which exist and operate ‘without conscious awareness, intention, or control’ ( Levy and Banaji, 2002). They tend to occur more in relation to stigmatised or marginalised groups and are triggered by external cues (e.g. gender, skin colour, the clothes people wear, and the environment they’re in) and they can be negative or positive. Because they are unintentional, trying to control them is tricky ( Blair et al 2011); indeed, we need to identify our implicit biases before we even start, otherwise we do not know that we have them.
Cordelia Fine, Associate Professor and Fellow in Psychological Sciences, made unconscious gender bias the topic of her book Delusions of Gender. Through a careful review of the evidence, she explored numerous arguments that were based on the idea that gender differences were ‘hard wired’ in the brain, and the subsequent conclusions that one gender was better suited to a specific task or job than the other gender. According to Cordelia these arguments were flawed because the differences in tasks between women and men observed during experiments could be explained by unconscious gender bias.
“What social psychologists find is that when they push gender into the psychological background, men and women’s behaviour becomes remarkably similar, even in areas where traditionally the sexes would behave differently. But when the environment makes gender salient, even subtly, there’s a ripple effect on the mind. Our thinking, our behaviour, the way we perceive others and even our own selves becomes more consistent with gender stereotypes.”

While not completely dismissing the idea that some sex differences may exist in the brain, Cordelia argued that social context and the complexity of the brain make it difficult to reliably argue this point.
Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics and University Gender Equality Champion, explored the impact that implicit gender bias could have on women’s career progression. She based her article on the consistent finding that girls outperform boys at school but women ‘lag behind’ men in terms of employment pay and promotion. According to Athene, women’s career progression is affected by gender stereotypes, particularly when the job is science based.
She described research studies where the names on identical CVs were switched between female and male. They found that male applicants were ‘significantly’ more likely to be offered the job, awarded a higher pay rate, and provided with more support, by both women and men.
“Each and every one of us is likely to believe that we can judge people fairly on their merits, regardless of gender, and yet the reality, as evidenced by study after study, is that we are really rather bad at it. We carry all kinds of baggage around in our heads that can defeat even the best-intentioned individual, whether they are male or female.”

When we think about implicit bias in relation to age (I’m taking about old age rather than ageism of the young), similar issues have been identified. Ageing in western societies tends to be viewed in terms of physical and mental decline, and this dominant perspective can frame our attitudes and beliefs. Becca Levy and Mahzarin Banaji (2002) have described how negative views about older age remain widespread in contemporary society:
“Through fairy tales, children are likely to be exposed to older characters who are portrayed as evil and sinister (Hansel and Gretel) or weak and gullible (Little Red Riding Hood). Television may also promote images of aging that contribute to the formation of implicit age stereotypes. The old are often absent or else appear in comical roles that highlight stereotypes of their decline and incompetence.”

Messages such as these, alongside the ones we see in everyday adverts and television shows that mock older people or portray them in age stereotypical ways, contribute to implicit ageism.
We know that implicit biases occur when people have internalised cultural stereotypes but these aren’t just about how we view others; people can direct the stereotypes inwards, which Becca Levy and colleagues (2002) refers to as self-stereotyping. Thus implicit bias is a two-way street, creating psychological barriers to better equality, and making ageism and sexism a particularly toxic combination for women.

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