Women reduce implicit gender bias after being exposed to sexism

The human mind is littered with implicit biases that covertly impact perceptions and behaviors. A good example of such a bias is gender stereotyping. Historically, efforts to reduce the negative effects of gender stereotypes have focused on explicitly observable behaviors. This is because, until relatively recently, implicit biases were thought to be resistant to change. It has now become apparent that implicit biases can indeed be modified by a multitude of factors, including environmental context, motivation and changes in egalitarian tendencies.

A new study continues to expand upon these findings by examining the impact of exposure to sexist ideas on implicit gender biases. As described in a 2016 issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology, two experiments were conducted by a research team led by Miguel R. Ramos of the University of Oxford.

“This research demonstrates that whilst women can demonstrate gender stereotype bias, they are less likely to do so when reminded of sexist beliefs,” the researchers explained.

“Although the effect of exposure to sexism on implicit gender stereotype bias has yet to be examined, prior research has made clear that women are often motivated to explicitly disconfirm gender stereotypes when these are made salient.”

A total of 115 subjects (60 female) participated in the first experiment and were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first set was not exposed to sexism, the second was exposed to benevolent sexism (well-intentioned but stereotypical) and the third to hostile sexism. Exposure was achieved with a photo-sentence memory task by manipulating the sentence content between groups.

The effect was measured using an implicit association test. As predicted by the researchers, women displayed a reduced implicit gender bias when exposed to either form of sexism, but not men. Specifically, women exposed to sexism were more likely to associate female names with competence.

Experiment 2 examined the association more closely by focusing on two stereotypical female characteristics: high levels of warmth and low levels of competence. The study included 168 participants (92 female) who were assigned to one of the same three conditions as in the first experiment (benevolent sexism, hostile sexism and no sexism).

A similar procedure was utilized, with the two target variables being the most prominently featured sexist characteristics in sentence content. Women once again displayed lower implicit bias after exposure to both types of sexism whereas males did not. Changes in competence bias were found to be significant, but no effect was observed in judgements of warmth.

Taken together, these results clearly demonstrate that exposure to sexism can have an appreciable effect on implicit gender bias in women. After viewing sexist materials, women displayed more competence in contrast to the expectations of the implicit gender bias. However, no effect was observed for males.

This difference may be explained by the motivation of females to oppose gender stereotypes, since men rarely face the negative consequences of such biases while women are constantly bombarded with barriers arising specifically from unsubstantiated beliefs about their gender.