Why Gender Bias Persists, and How Behavioral Science Can Help Us Overcome It

When my mother decided she wanted to work outside of the home, she faced incredible challenges. She was told that her place was at home, that she would never match up to a man, and that she would bring disrepute to her family. Employers asked her if she planned to have children, what she would do if her husband got transferred, and even held interviews in hotel rooms where men on the panel sipped whiskeys. Despite the challenges, my mother, and many women like her, battled sexism, negative stereotyping, and discrimination at work, society, and at home to scale incredible heights.

It has been forty years since my mother chose to work. While incredible strides have been made in reducing the gender gap since then, it persists stubbornly in varying degrees across the world.

Evidence shows that global progress on gender parity has been mixed when assessed across several dimensions, including: economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; health and survival; and political empowerment. While individual countries have made incredible progress, on average, we have a long way to go. According to the World Economic Forum, it will take us 95 years to close the gender gap in political representation, with women holding only a quarter of parliamentary seats and of ministerial positions today. Worse still, it will take us a staggering 257 years to achieve parity in economic participation and opportunity.1

This forces us to ask questions about how gender biases came to be in the first place, and why they have been so stubborn across millennia despite major changes in how humans think or organize themselves. For example, despite the enormity of objective evidence and philosophical arguments that the scientific revolution has produced favoring gender parity, we are still far from being unbiased. Behavioral science could help us understand why we hold these biases that are so hard to get rid of, and more importantly, give us some insights on how to change mindsets and ensure gender parity in society, at work, and at home.

The anatomy of gender bias

There seems to be broad agreement that women have mostly had lesser status and power compared to men across all societies, and that phases of equality have only been brief.2 Hypotheses about why son preferences and general pro-male biases develop range from the relative importance of men and women amongst hunter-gatherers to role relevance in agrarian societies. Identifying the causes of these biases may not be easy, and it may be more worthwhile to identify both specific and broad sets of biases and work to eliminate them.3

One important distinction to draw is between explicit and implicit bias. We are explicitly biased when we are aware of the fact that we are prejudiced against women. In other words, we are acting deliberately—something Nobel Prize winning Economist Daniel Kahneman calls System 2 or “slow” thinking.4 For example, in many parts of the world, people knowingly engage in sex-selective abortions, spend less on educating their daughter compared to their sons, pay women less than men for similar jobs, and caricature women in positions of fame and power.5

However, people who are not explicitly biased, who may even think of themselves as supporting gender parity, can unknowingly be biased in their actions or use negative stereotypes, and potentially even hold the same underlying beliefs as those with explicit biases. Acting on an implicit bias would be akin to System 1, or “fast” thinking without deliberation.6 In other words, one may never realize that one is being biased.7

Central to why explicit and implicit biases develop, and are so hard to get rid of, is the fact that they reflect our core beliefs. Beliefs are essentially energy-saving shortcuts our brains use to make sense of the world around us: they are representations of the world we live in, and are efficient templates to hold as a group and transfer to others.8 Further, processes in the brain involved in abstract belief formation evolved from simpler processes related to interpreting sensory perception. Since we experience the external world entirely through the filter of our senses, we find it hard to see that these perceptions are not objectively real, and may not be accurate.9

Add to all of that the neurological need for the steady state of internal conditions known as “homeostasis,” a dynamic physiological state of equilibrium that leads to a natural resistance to change, and you’re left with something akin to cognitive dissonance.10 We don’t like to have our beliefs challenged, and are unlikely to change what we believe even in the face of contradictory evidence.

Another factor at play is that, more often than not, we tend to yield significant power to society when we evaluate our beliefs, adhering to social norms. Since our beliefs are closely tied to our self-concept, we look for consistency and therefore tend to “pick and choose” evidence (confirmation bias), believe things which seem familiar (mere exposure effect), evaluate evidence and generate evidence, and test hypotheses in a manner biased toward our prior opinions and attitudes.11,12,13,14

Changing gender beliefs and behavior

Beliefs about gender have changed across the world, and will continue to change as people’s philosophies evolve and they adjust to new evidence. However, many argue that people need some sort of intervention to change their views on gender. Some studies have found success in this approach: A study in India found that gender quotas across village councils weakened stereotypes about gender roles in public and domestic spheres, and eliminated the negative bias against women with respect to their ability govern amongst male villagers.15 Research in the US has also shown that legislators who have daughters vote differently on women-related issues, suggesting it might be beneficial to support candidates with female children.16

However, not all interventions have worked. Recent research on whether legal interventions can help change beliefs led to a surprising conclusion: the results showed that having a sexual harassment policy in place at an organization may not alter explicit gender beliefs, and may actually have the unintended effect of activating negative gender biases, which run contrary to the policy’s equalizing aims. Financial incentives have also fallen flat as a means of changing behavior.17 For example, a state government in India, in order to combat son preferences and a rising population, offered its citizens a financial incentive for having a daughter, and a lower incentive for having two girls or one boy. This led to fall in the number of children families had, but did not change the sex ratio. In other words, families still preferred boys over girls.18

It is because of the slow-burn nature and mixed results of interventions focused on directly changing beliefs that Harvard Professor Iris Bohnet suggests “shoving” rather than “nudging,” using behavioral design to de-bias organizations instead of individuals. According to Bohnet, practice must be the first to change, with beliefs following suit later.19 For example, in the hiring process, she suggests the following methods for eliminating bias:

  • Crafting job descriptions to remove bias by making them equally appealing to men and women.20
  • Anonymizing resumes to remove bias against specific groups of people.21,22
  • Using an “evaluation nudge” in which candidates are evaluated jointly rather than separately, stopping evaluators from relying on cognitive shortcuts such as gender stereotypes.23
  • Using structured interviews and tests to ensure objectivity and fairness—they are far more effective in ensuring equal treatment.24

The success of these interventions is not contingent on a change in beliefs—only a change in the choice architecture. By making minor adjustments to the context in which decisions are made, the effects of unconscious bias can be sharply reduced. The question that remains is whether forcing a change in behavior will eventually have an impact on people’s underlying prejudice.

Closing comments

While social movements, spirited individuals, academics, and even whole countries will drive the gender parity agenda ahead, evidence so far suggests it will be long, hard, and drawn-out affair. Reflecting on female and economic empowerment, Nobel Prize-winning economist Esther Duflo observes, “… in one direction, development alone can play a major role in driving down inequality between men and women; in the other direction, empowering women may benefit development… [but] the interrelationships are probably too weak to be self-sustaining, and that continuous policy commitment to equality for its own sake may be needed to bring about equality between men and women.” Indeed, even if we cannot see the results all of the time, we must spirit on because it is the right thing to do.25

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