Gender Bias: Is it Real? How to Overcome It

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Gender roles in society are finally being seen as outdated, but many of us still feel the need to play into certain gender roles. Why do we continue to be trapped in gender roles that no longer seem relevant to our modern lives?

The existence of gender roles in society and implicit gender bias may be the results of our unconscious associations. Learn how our unconscious biases affect our conscious decisions and take action to change your implicit gender biases.

Why We Still Have Gender Roles in Society

Even when we consciously believe that a woman has the right to opt-out of having children, have a thriving career, and/or wear what she pleases, we still have unconscious, implicit gender biases that tell us otherwise. This preserves the traditional gender roles in society.

Statistics from the administration of the Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT) demonstrate that, regardless of our stated beliefs, most of us pair the concept of “male” with the concept of “career,” and pair “female” with “family.” When the IAT jumbles them, our reaction times are slower. This demonstrates why gender roles in society remain.

For example, when given two categories—Male/Career and Female/Family—we can sort words like “laundry,” “entrepreneur,” “merchant,” and “siblings” pretty quickly.

But change the categories to Male/Family and Female/Career, and the conscious mind has to course correct for the unconscious mind, which still yokes “male” with “career” and “female” with “family.” This slows down our reaction times. It also demonstrates our implicit gender biases.

Although we may not like it or consciously agree with it, most of us have a moderate or strong “automatic male association” when it comes to the workforce. Conversely, we associate females with the home and family. These implicit gender biases cement the gender roles in society that have been in place for centuries.

Can We Change Our Implicit Gender Biases?

Yes, but it takes effort. It’s possible to fight the Warren Harding error (judging based on appearances), to retrain your implicit assumptions by being aware of them and actively using your conscious mind to counter them. One car salesman has successfully used this strategy to ward off his implicit biases about customers. This example shows that it’s possible to fight implicit gender biases (among other biases). This might loosen our ties to traditional gender roles in society.

Bias in Car Sales

Car salesmen have a history of prejudging customers. A 1990s study of how the race and gender of a customer affect the car price found that Chicago car dealers, spread over 242 dealerships, offer white men the lowest prices (an average of $725 above what the dealer paid for the car), followed by white women ($935 above invoice), Black women ($1,195 above invoice), and finally, Black men ($1,687 above invoice).

You might think this is a conscious choice on the part of the dealers. They assume that anyone who isn’t a white male is a sucker, stupid enough to pay a car’s sticker price.

But the actors playing the part of customers in the study made it very obvious that they weren’t stupid. Researchers instructed all “customers,” regardless of race or gender, to make it clear that they were educated, had successful careers, and lived in wealthy neighborhoods. Black and female customers bargained for an average of 40 minutes, demonstrating that they were not willing to pay the sticker price. (White men didn’t have to negotiate at all. This is implicit gender bias and implicit racial bias in action.)

The conscious minds of the dealers must have told them that these people clearly weren’t suckers. But their unconscious minds weren’t convinced. Chicago car salesmen unconsciously link the concept of a “lay-down” with women and minorities.

Implicit gender biases and race biases perpetuate stereotypes about women and minorities and contribute to the defined gender roles in society and the roles we associate with people of different races and backgrounds.

If for no other reason than to make more sales, it’s in the seller’s best interest to consciously fight unconscious biases. At least one man has caught on. Counter to general car-selling wisdom, the best salesman at one New Jersey dealership quotes everyone the same price. His reputation for being fair gets him many referrals, which make up a third of his business. He sells about 20 cars per month, double the average of most salesmen.

This salesman attributes his success to his conscious belief that you can’t know which customer has the most money to spend or which one will be a lay-down. He understands the errors of unconscious attitudes that make judgments about customers, and makes a conscious effort to counter them.

Use this example as inspiration to consciously counter your implicit gender biases and knock down the barriers produced by traditional gender roles in society.

Gender Bias: Is it Real? How to Overcome It

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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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