Sexism At Work

A couple of years after I graduated from college, I applied for an American Express card. I had a great job and a great track record. When they turned me down, I suspected my gender was the reason. So I turned right around and applied again, only this time I changed the name from Susan A Walsh to SA Walsh. My new card arrived within days, and still bears that neutral name today, above “Member since 1981.”

I never imagined that level of sexism and bias might still be prevalent 33 years later, but I recently saw a graphic from the National Academy of Sciences that shocked me:

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Men Exhibit More Confirmation Bias Than Women Do

confirmation biasThis post reviews the paper The Effect of Gender on Cognitive Structuring: Who are More Biased, Men or Women?

Here is the common assumption in popular culture:

Ample evidence demonstrates the existence of stereotypes about gender differences: men are more rational than women, while women are more emotional, intuitive and biased.

We’ve certainly gotten an earful of this at HUS over the years! Female solipsism, anyone?

Back in 1989 researcher J. Meyers-Levy found evidence for another, counterintuitive hypothesis:

In her Selectivity Hypothesis Meyers-Levy theorizes that men are considered to be “selective processors” who often do not engage in comprehensive processing of all available information before rendering judgment. Instead, they seem to rely on various heuristics in place of detailed information processing…Women, on the other hand, are considered to be “comprehensive processors” who attempt to assimilate all available information before rendering judgment.

Yoram Bar-Tal of Tel Aviv University and Maria Jarymowicz of Warsaw University sought to test the hypothesis further, conducting the three separate studies that comprise this paper.


Two different thinking approaches prevail among human beings:

Cognitive Structuring

“CS has been defined as “the creation and use of abstract mental representations (e.g., schemata, prototypes, scripts, attitudes, and stereotypes)—representations that are simplified generalizations of previous experience.”

Piecemeal Processing

“Piecemeal processing involves vigilant behavior, consisting of a bottom-up, systematic and effortful search for relevant information, and the evaluation and unbiased assimilation of that information. 

CS allows individuals to attain certainty most efficiently because it is relatively automatic, effort-free and faster than piecemeal processing. It helps reach certainty by filtering out inconsistent and/or irrelevant information and may make use of previously stored information if needed to attain certainty as to the validity of the inference. CS is often identified with holistic and top-down processing. These characteristics make CS very effective….using CS helps the perceiver to make the world a meaningful, orderly, and predictable place.

In addition, however, to the very functional characteristics of CS it is also characterized by the use of:

  1. crudely differentiated categories
  2. stereotypical thinking
  3. heuristic, biased cognition

The association between CS and the use of biases is explained by the lower utilization of the relevant information as well as the relying on previously stored information that might be in form of stereotypes or other schema.”

One obvious example might be the categorical rejection of numerous sources of relevant data in favor of anecdotal evidence gathered while “working at a bar” or “according to my cubicle mate who is a player.” See where this is going? :)

Previous Research

Among the few studies that have examined this question is Martin’s study (B. A. Martin, “The influence of gender on mood effects in advertising,” 2003), which showed that men and women are affected differently by promotional messages. Women were found to process promotional information more comprehensively than men, while men focused on more peripheral information.

This implies that men use schema based heuristic strategies to process information. Hayes, Allinson and Armstrong found, similarly, that women use more analytical (less intuitive) information processing than men (J. Hayes, C. W. Allinson and S. J. Armstrong, “Intuition, Women Managers and Gendered Stereotypes,” 2004).

The three studies in this paper further examine how gender predicts the use of available diagnostic information (explicit measurement) rather than relying on a “self-schema” (implicit measurement).

Significant Findings

Study 1

“Confirmation bias is defined as the tendency, when examining the validity of a hypothesis, to prefer corroborative rather than refuting evidence. Study 1 focuses on the tendency to avoid examining rival hypotheses.”

A t-test showed that men’s confirmation bias (M = 1.43 SD = 1.09) was significantly higher than women’s (M = 1.09 SD = 0.96), which supported the study hypothesis that women tended to use cognitive structuring less than men.

Study 2

The second study examined the effect of subliminal priming messages while asking men and women to guess which photos represented people who were in relationships, and in a second set of photos, which people made the most money.

Women’s judgments were not affected by the priming, while men showed a significant shift.

Study 3

The third study aimed to discern whether gender plays a role in the extent to which personality traits influence decision making. Specifically, the personality trait anxiety was studied in relation to decision making during a health crisis.

The correlation between trait anxiety and the measures of state anxiety, distress, and well-being was significantly higher for men than women. Thus, this study validates the hypothesis that men use schematic thinking more than women do.

The data and findings of the three studies clearly support the idea that men tend to use more CS (and therefore use more cognitive biases) than women do.

As someone who is fairly analytical and logical, I have often been described as being “male brained,” and I tend to think of myself that way. I appreciate learning about research that illustrates my own biases, so that I may correct them. 

Don’t let anyone tell you that as a woman your judgment is compromised by your being emotional, solipsistic or irrational. Turns out you’re very good at piecemeal processing. My experience as a blogger dealing with confirmation bias, while anecdotal, is considerable, and very much in keeping with the research findings. YMMV, as always. 


Acting Shy, Looking Weird and Feeling Grateful

A roundup of interesting tidbits:

1. Be You

What I find interesting about this video is that is strikes me as so true – I do this all the time. Yet this is also the age of the selfie. I suspect that most of us don’t want our image recorded when we haven’t prepared fully with makeup, hair styling, etc. We see a huge gap between our polished selves and our everyday selves, and we don’t want anyone to see the latter, even though that’s how we look most of the time.

2. Some interesting findings on physical attractiveness:

Older dads, funny-looking kids

NOTE TO SINGLE LADIES: A handsome older man may seem like a good catch, but your children may not look quite so nice. Austrian researchers analyzed data on people who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957, including ratings of the attractiveness of their yearbook photos. They found that the age of people’s fathers at their birth, but not the age of their mothers, was negatively associated with attractiveness. The researchers theorize that a man is more liable to pass on mutations as he (and his sperm production process) ages, and, they say, “our results thus support the view that mutations are expressed in facial attractiveness.”

Huber, S. & Fieder, M., “Advanced Paternal Age Is Associated with Lower Facial Attractiveness,” Evolution and Human Behavior (forthcoming).

We knew that older dads pass on autism and psychiatric disorders, but this is the first study I’ve seen  mutations that degrade looks. 

Is Symmetry a Valid Standard of Beauty?

One of the primary indicator of “good genes,” according to evolutionary psychologists, is physical symmetry. It suggests better prenatal development and fewer mutations. But that does necessarily mean the person is attractive?

Fashion photographer Alex John Beck recently decided to test the symmetrical theory of attractiveness by photographing regular people and then making symmetrical versions of each person’s face, by using first the left and then the right side. 

Beck took a portrait of each person and then divided it into the left and right side of the face. Then he mirrored each to create symmetrical portraits from each side.

Beck’s results are definitely odd and a little disconcerting. 

 ajb10 ajb5 ajb8

Apparently, the subjects found the process upsetting. Beck doesn’t provide any photos of the actual person – he wanted to focus on the differences between these perfectly symmetrical faces. You can find the rest of the portraits HERE.

3. Claire at Beacon Street Chic asks:

Can you be happy for 100 days in a row?


She’s inspired me to take up the challenge – post one photo a day of something that makes you happy. I’m using Instagram – you can follow me at instagram.com/susanawalsh

This is only my second day, and already I feel such gratitude! Why not take up the challenge? Share your account and let’s all follow one another!


Fascinating News About Marriage in America!

groomA new study of 10,000 young people examines the predictors of marriage within “a few years” regardless of the individual’s intentions. The conclusions in Personal Traits, Cohabitation and Marriage may surprise you - the researchers found that those most likely to marry were those who scored highest on personality, grooming and physical attractiveness. In other words, being more attractive in numerous ways increased offers, which increased marriage. The study found no difference between men and women.

There is a wealth of prior research linking marriage to happier and healthier lives. However, the causal relationships are not well understood. Are happy, healthy people more likely to marry? Or is it marriage that makes people feel better? Most prior research on marriage has focused primarily on physical attractiveness and socioeconomic status. This despite the following finding:

Kindness, agreeableness, and intelligence were the most highly ranked characteristics sought in a mate by both men and women (Buss, 1985, Buss, 1989, Buss and Barnes, 1986, Li and Kenrick, 2006 and Botwin et al., 1997).

Unlike physical attractiveness, previous studies have found that women tend to view personality characteristics as more important than men when evaluating a partner (Botwin et al., 1997, Braun and Bryan, 2006 and Shackelford et al., 2005).

The new study hypothesized that other traits would play a significant role in a person’s likelihood of entering marriage, using a personal traits index comprised of physical attractiveness, personality attractiveness, and level of  grooming. 

Our main hypothesis was strongly confirmed in that higher scores on the personal traits index were significantly and positively associated with the likelihood of entering into a marital relationship for both men and women. The marriage finding was robust in all of the sensitivity tests and is consistent with the notion that these young adults take into account the “whole package” when selecting a marital partner.

Moreover, we found quantitatively similar results for men and women, suggesting an egalitarian trend in mate selection, whereby women and men select mates based on broadly similar personal traits (Whelan,2006).

The analysis revealed that increasing the overall index score by one Standard Deviation led to a 13.7% increase in marriage odds for men, and a 13.2% increase for women. None of the traits stood out individually – the boost to the overall score was the significant variable.

This suggests that those who may be weak in one area can improve their chances of marrying significantly if they increase their score in another area. For example, a good sense of humor can compensate for lower attractiveness. And those who have good personalities fare better than average regardless of their strength on the other traits. 

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Haunted By His Promiscuous Past

Dear Susan,

I have been dating this guy for about a year and a half now. I love him, and loves me. He is my best friend, and he claims I am his. However, his promiscuous past seems to always be getting in between us, mostly, just bugging me. We met when he was a senior in college, and I a freshman.

I had a big crush on him, and when finally a mutual friend introduced us we clicked right away. We talked for an entire month via email and skype over winter break right after we first met, and as soon as we were both back together in school, it was instant chemistry and it did not take long for us to start dating.

Recently though, I found out about his promiscuous past. He decided to tell me about all his past sexual encounters, all names and times he had been with each partner.. A bit too much information. He had been with a total of eight girls before me. The first one was the girl he lost his virginity to in high school, who was his girlfriend for a bit. Then in college, he went a little crazy. He slept with a few girls his freshman year. His sophomore year he dated a girl for about 6 months or so, until she cheated on him and started dating another guy. He said that she fucked with his heart, so he became more promiscuous then ever. From his junior year of college until his second semester senior year, when we got together, he slept with many girls many times. A total of five or six girls in one year and a half.

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