Issues & Debates: Gender Bias
Last updated 5 Sept 2022
The term bias is used to suggest that a person’s views are distorted in some way, and in psychology there is evidence that gender is presented in a biased way. This bias leads to differential treatment of males and females, based on stereotypes and not real differences.
For example, Freud argued that ‘anatomy is destiny’, meaning that there are genuine psychological differences between men and women because of their physiological differences, for example, he claimed young girls suffer from ‘penis envy’, and viewed femininity as failed form of masculinity.
The difficulty lies in distinguishing “real” from culturally created gender differences. Evidence suggests that there are a small number of real gender differences, confirmed through cross-cultural studies. For example, in a review of the research on sex differences, Maccoby and Jacklin (1974) concluded that there were only four differences between boys and girls, including:
- Girls have greater verbal ability
- Boys have greater visual and spatial abilities
- Boys have greater arithmetical ability, a difference that only appears at adolescence
- Girls are less aggressive than boys
Androcentrism means being centred on, or dominated by males and can be conscious (the individual knows they are behaving this way) or unconscious. In the past most psychologists were male, and the theories they produced tended to represent a male view of the world. Hare-Mustin and Marecek (1988) argued for there being two types of gender bias: alpha and beta bias.
Alpha bias refers to theories which exaggerate the differences between males and females. For example, in his psychoanalytic approach, Freud argued that because girls do not suffer the same oedipal conflict as boys, they do not identify with their mothers as strongly as boys identify with their fathers, so develop weaker superegos.
The evolutionary approach in psychology has also been criticised for its alpha bias. This is because this approach suggests that evolutionary processes in the development of the human species explain why men tend to be dominant, why women have a more parental investment in their offspring, and why men are more likely to commit adultery. However, society has changed considerably over recent years, and it is argued that the evolutionary perspective shouldn’t be used to justify gender differences.
Beta bias theories have traditionally ignored or minimised sex differences. These theories often assume that the findings from males can apply equally to females.
For example, Kohlberg’s stage theory of moral development was based on extensive interviews that he conducted with boys aged 10-16. The same all male sample was then re-interviewed at intervals of 3-4 years over a 20- year period. His classification system is based on a morality of justice and some researchers, such as Carol Gilligan (1982), have found that women tend to be more focused on relationships when making moral decisions and therefore often appear to be at a lower level of moral reasoning when using Kohlberg’s system. Therefore Kohlberg’s approach meant that a real difference was ignored.
There is also evidence of beta bias in psychological research. Male and female participants are used in most studies, but there is normally no attempt to analyse the data to see whether there are significant sex differences. Where differences are found, it may be possible that these occur because researchers ignore the differential treatment of participants. For example, Rosenthal (1966) reported that male experimenters were more pleasant, friendly, honest, and encouraging with female than with male participants. This led Rosenthal to conclude: “Male and female subjects may, psychologically, simply not be in the same experiment at all.”
Even some animal research can be argued to suffer from beta bias. For example, biological research into the fight-or-flight response has often been carried out with male animals because they have less variation in hormones than females. It was assumed that this would not be a problem as the fight-or-flight response would be the same for both. However, later stress research by Taylor et al. (2000) has challenged this view by providing evidence that females produce a tend-and-befriend response. The beta-bias in the earlier animal studies meant that for a long time the stress response was not fully understood and a real difference was ignored.
The result of beta bias in psychological research is that we end up with a view of human nature that is supposed to apply to men and women alike, but in fact, has a male or androcentric bias. For example, Asch’s (1955) conformity studies involved all male participants, as did many of the other conformity studies (e.g., Perrin & Spencer, 1980) and therefore it was assumed that females would respond in the same way.