The New York Times is reporting on an interesting study about the perniciousness of gender bias. The authors of the study crafted a resume of an “above average but not spectacular” graduate student in the natural sciences, and then sent the resume to a number of different faculty who run labs at different top-notch research institutions. The faculty were asked to grade the resume on a 1-7 scale, and then were asked a number of questions about how much time they might be willing to put in to help mentor this person, and what starting salary they might offer to the person. The only difference between resumes was that in some of the resumes, the name at the top said “John”; in others it said “Jennifer”.
They found that “John” was rated as more competent, was more likely to be hired, was more likely to receive mentoring, and was offered a substantially higher starting salary than “Jennifer”. That is depressing, but not surprising. What I found most interesting, however, was that the demographics of the faculty played no role in their assessment of the candidate: the bias held regardless of the age, race, or gender of the resume reader. In other words, a 35 year old female faculty member was just as likely to assess “John” as better than “Jennifer” as a 65 year old male faculty member.
The take home here is that we are all biased. Whether our bias is about gender, race, age, facial characteristics, clothing, mustaches… we are all biased, and often in ways that we would adamantly deny. After all, I would guess that the majority of people who looked at those resumes would claim that gender was not a factor in their decision. And yet the statistics say otherwise.
The other thing to keep in mind here is that it doesn’t take a lot to trigger our biased impressions of someone. The only difference between the two resumes in question was the first name; there was nothing done to explicitly draw the readers’ attention to the gender of the candidate. And yet based on that one subtle cue, potential employers rated “Jennifer” as substantially less competent.
So remember this as you vote. Whether you want to admit it or not, you will make judgments about the candidates based on the implied gender and ethnicity of their names, on subtle distinctions in the candidate’s appearances, and even on your own mood and environment when you sit down to vote. Those are all pretty silly things to base an election on–but hey, that’s democracy.