profiling and unconscious bias – part 2

In a world of survival of the fittest, it makes sense that animals are hard-wired with a basic instinct that has them making snap judgments about their predators. Some chimpanzees attack chimps that are of the same species, but not a part of their group. And some fish attack their own kind simply because they weren’t hatched in the same lake.

But what about human beings? Psychologists say we categorize — or stereotype — by age and race and gender, because our brains are wired to do so automatically.

(The Psychology of Stereotypes)

With the best will in the world, we can’t escape our brain’s tribal quick-think facility that throws everyone we meet into neat boxes. Sometimes our boxes have accuracy and relevance on their side, and sometimes our assumptions are miles from reality, and our natural bias is unreasonable and unhelpful.

In areas as seemingly innocuous as classical music, it has been demonstrated that gender bias is prevalent:

A change in the way symphony orchestras recruit musicians provides an unusual way to test for sex-biased hiring. To overcome possible biases in hiring, most orchestras revised their audition policies in the 1970s and 1980s. A major change involved the use of blind’ auditions with a screen’ to conceal the identity of the candidate from the jury. Female musicians in the top five symphony orchestras in the United States were less than 5% of all players in 1970 but are 25% today.

In more obviously male-dominated areas, the same kind of studies demonstrate bias towards men:

Abundant research has demonstrated gender bias in many demographic groups, but has yet to experimentally investigate whether science faculty exhibit a bias against female students that could contribute to the gender disparity in academic science. In a randomized double-blind study (n = 127), science faculty from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student—who was randomly assigned either a male or female name—for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant.

When all else is equal, we make snap judgements that men are more competent.

Most of us accept that women should have equal opportunities to men when it comes to access to education, work and most things in life generally. Most of us are pleased that there are laws in place to ensure there can be no overt discrimination. But most of us seem unwilling to explore or acknowledge the levels of unconscious bias that affect the decisions made by all humans.

If women aren’t in top jobs, it’s because they’re not interested! If women aren’t represented in politics, media or on screen, it’s because better qualified male candidates were justly chosen! Really? Really?

Even among those who state gender-equitable ideals, individuals may have an underlying predisposition to favor male candidates over female candidates. So there appears to be a gulf between our conscious ideals of equality and our unconscious tendency to discriminate in the ballot box.

An implicit bias against women as leaders means that many are reluctant to vote for women candidates.

Last year, females comprised just 12 percent of protagonists featured in the top 100 (domestic) grossing films, according to the latest It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World study. This represents a decline of 3 percentage points from 2013 and 4 percentage points from 2002. Females accounted for 29 percent of major characters, and 30 percent of all speaking characters last year. These figures represent no change from 2013. In part, female characters remain underrepresented due to the dearth of women working behind the scenes. In 2014, women constituted 17 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 (domestic) grossing films.

Women’s Media Center

How do we tackle this? Quotas. Positive Discrimination. I don’t mean in companies (although there is an issue there), I mean in areas that are meant to represent society. What is the argument for year after year of leader pictures like this?


In politics, on screen, in the media, there is no excuse for women to be so chronically under-represented. Let’s campaign to change numbers in these key areas through the introduction of gender quotas, and see how unconscious bias based on gender can fall apart in every other area of life.