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Implicit Bias Study Reveals 75% of People Perceive Men to Be Smarter Than Women

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Key Takeaways

  • According to a new study, men, women, and children in dozens of countries implicitly associate high intelligence with men more than women.
  • The study builds on a larger body of research about gender stereotypes, which can affect women's representation in certain academic and career fields.
  • Experts say changing implicit stereotypes isn't easy, but it can start with your everyday language, as well as diverse representation in TV shows, films, and advertisements.

Though few people will admit (at least out loud) to being sexist, new research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that nearly 75% of people surveyed in dozens of countries implicitly associate high levels of intelligence or “brilliance” with men more than women.

That bias, even though it's unconscious, could play a role in why women are underrepresented in fields like science and technology, particularly STEM, where “success is perceived to depend on high levels of intellectual ability,” the study says. But it could also extend to other fields and parts of society, like politics, where there are gender stereotypes associated with agency and leadership.

“If you swap out the stereotype about brilliance with other stereotypes, the same kind of mechanisms unfold in other domains where women are underrepresented,” says Andrei Cimpian, PhD, a co-author of the study and an associate professor in the department of psychology at New York University.

What The Study Found

Researchers from NYU, the University of Denver, and Harvard University asked more than 3,600 people (including children) from over 78 countries if they agreed with the stereotype that men were more brilliant than women. They said they didn’t. 

But then researchers asked them to take a test that measured their implicit bias, or the attitudes or stereotypes that unconsciously affect our decisions. The result: Across a series of five studies, between 60% and 75% of participants showed some evidence of an implicit stereotype that associated brilliance with men more than women.

How Implicit Bias Is Measured and Why It Matters

Implicit bias has become reconceptualized in the field of psychology as an important measurement not only of what an individual holds in their mind, but of the surrounding culture as well, says Tessa Charlesworth, a graduate student in the department of psychology at Harvard University and a co-author of the study. 

Tessa Charlesworth, doctoral student

Understanding implicit bias means understanding systemic bias.

— Tessa Charlesworth, doctoral student

“Measures of implicit bias actually pick up the associations that are embedded every day around us,” Charlesworth tells Verywell. “If you take that perspective, then understanding implicit bias means understanding systemic bias.” 

As a result, understanding how deeply embedded the association of male as "genius" and female as "happy" or "creative" is in cultures around the world can help psychologists understand why women or people of color are underrepresented in fields that are more likely to value traits like “brilliance” or “genius.” 

But how do you measure implicit bias? The researchers used the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which was first released online in 1998. The test asks people to quickly sort images and words that appear on the screen using keys on a computer keyboard. Grouping certain words or images together can reveal an implicit bias, but the speed at which a participant sorts matters, too. For instance, if “men” and “brilliant” go together in a participant’s mind due to a stereotype, then it would be faster to sort the stimuli appearing on the screen, Cimpian explains. 

Implicit Stereotypes Affect Various Fields & Can Predict Diversity Problems

The new research on the gender-brilliance stereotype fits into a larger body of work conducted by Cimpian’s lab, which is attempting to understand why some fields and organizations reflect more diversity than others. When people in a field believe that success is determined by “some sort of innate firepower that you either have or don’t have and you can’t work on,” that belief is correlated with lower diversity in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity, across a wide range of fields and organizations, Cimpian says.

“Overall, STEM fields are more likely to endorse the belief that you have to be brilliant to succeed," he says. "But there's variation among the STEM fields, and that variation tracks with their diversity.” A 2015 study co-authored by Cimpian found that while women were earning around half of all PhDs in fields such as molecular biology and neuroscience, less than 20% of women were earning PhDs in physics and computer science, two disciplines commonly associated with "brilliance." By contrast, around 70% of all PhDs in the humanities such as art history and psychology were earned by women at the time.

Andrei Cimpian, PhD

These stereotypes only have power to marginalize certain groups more than others because we tell young people in these fields that they have to have that ‘special gift.'

— Andrei Cimpian, PhD

In 2016 research, Cimpian and his colleagues evaluated more than 14 million reviews on Rate My Professors, which allows students to anonymously review their professors. They found that fields in which students used the words “brilliant” and “genius” in reviews of professors had fewer female and African Americans with PhDs. The researchers also noted that the effect appeared to trickle down: “We found that brilliance-focused fields also had fewer women and African Americans obtaining bachelor’s degrees,” they wrote.

Given how gender stereotypes seem pervasive among academic fields, Cimpian says the gender brilliance study was an attempt to document whether people endorse a stereotype that associates brilliance and genius with men more than women, and, if so, how widespread the stereotype is. The results revealed that the majority of participants from 78 countries showed some evidence of an implicit stereotype, “whether the male and female targets were represented with verbal labels or pictures, and whether the pictures depicted White or Black targets.”

What This Means For You

There are many implicit biases related to gender, race, income, geographical location, and more. We all carry them, even if we like to think we would never stereotype someone based on their gender or race.

Implicit biases often lead to women, people of color, and other marginalized groups being underrepresented in various fields, but they also contribute to issues like police killings of Black people. Undoing implicit biases isn't easy and can take a lot of self-reflection. Start by evaluating how you think about stereotypes, and how you could better account for the ways they might influence your actions.

What Can We Do To Intervene?

Cimpian says that researchers hope to understand how beliefs about what’s required for success have affected diversity in certain academic fields. Now, he and his colleagues are evaluating whether women feel more like imposters in fields that value brilliance. Charlesworth says she’s currently evaluating millions of books, TV shows, and conversations to find out how prevalent gender stereotypes are in everyday language. 

They both agree that once researchers understand the prevalence of gender stereotypes and their effects on diversity in academic fields, the next step is intervention. But intervention is difficult, in part because people often aren’t aware of their implicit biases. Additionally, people develop implicit biases very early. The gender brilliance study included children as young as 9 and 10.

Charlesworth says that just getting more women in STEM fields won’t stop stereotypes that are embedded at a very young age by the surrounding culture. “We need to also do things as a society to audit ourselves and audit the systemic biases in our language, but also, in representation: in films, in posters,” she says. “We need to really disrupt it at the source of the culture.”

But people currently working in academia can also work to disrupt systems that reinforce biases. “These stereotypes only have power to marginalize certain groups more than others because we tell young people in these fields that they have to have that ‘special gift,’” Cimpian says. Instead, professors and those working in academia should talk about what they know people need to succeed: building specific skills or putting in hours of practice, for example.   

“Changing the rhetoric around what's required for success might also make the stereotypes be less important,” Cimpian says. 

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