Gender Bias in psychology

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What is “gender bias”?

This is the differential treatment or representation of men and women based on stereotypes rather than real differences.

This bias can exist in the way that research is carried out (biased sampling etc) or in theories that are biased in favour of a particular gender. The bias can take a number of forms, for example by over emphasising or underemphasising the differences between genders. Most often the bias is against females, favouring males. 


Alpha bias – Buss, crime, relationships

Beta bias – Milgram, Asch

Androcentric – diagnosis of abnormality; theories of crime; psychodynamic approach.

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Gender Bias: Key terms

1) Bias- learning in a particular direction, a systematic distortion in ones attitudes and beliefs based on prejudices or per-existing ideas.

2) Gender- a psychological element of a person's sex: masculinity & femininity being distinct from the biological category of male or female.

3) Alpha Bias- the tendency of some theories and research to assume real differences between men and women e.g by over valuating or devaluing a particular gender.

4) Beta Bias- the tendency of some theories and research to ignore or minimise the differences between men and women.

According to Kitzinger (1998) questions about gender differences have been used for a variety of reasons e.g. to keep women out of university, to put women in mental health institutes etc. In other words, the research into gender differences is often used for political reasons.  “However much psychologists may think or hope or believe that they are doing objective research and discovering truths about the world they are always influenced by the social and political context in which they are doing their research" (this quote would also be appropriate to use for the issue of culture bias.

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Maccoby & Jacklin (1974) found that girls have superior verbal skills whereas boys are better at spatial tasks. The effects of hormones on the developing brain may be the cause for this difference.

However, some ‘real’ differences may have been created, such as the claim that boys are better at maths – this superiority could be due to the fact that boys were expected to be better at maths than girls and schooling was aimed at pushing boys into maths and sciences and girls into arts and humanities. 

 Aristotle quotes "We should look upon the female as being a deformity'; Women do not have a developed sense of rationality.

The differences we see may be due to the way in which we constrict theories not because they actually exist.

Hare-Mustin and Marecek (1988) proposed that our stereotypes of gender are 'social constructions' of reality. Hare-Mustin and Maracek also point out that the implication that women are inherently more concerned with caring than men rules out the role that social construction could play.

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Alpha Bias

Alpha Bias- When the differences between men and women are shown and may be exaggerated. Either to heighten the value of women or devalue them. 

Androcentrism - Freud's theory of psychoanalysis took male behaviour as the standard for all human behaviour and viewed female behaviour as a deviation from that standard. This is particularly apparent when considering Freud’s explanation of the genital stage of development and ensuing Oedipus complex or in his ideas of morality. Remember that the Electra complex was developed 11 years after  the Oedipus complex showing that he disregards female behaviour. 

Williams (187) argues that Freud’s theory is not alpha biased. Freud did not claim that innate factors make men and women different but rather social context transforms biological factors into mental representations which in turn create differences.

Gynocentrism- Gilligans (1982) theory of moral development was developed as a response to that proposed by Kohlberg. Kohlberg said that women were morally inferior to men. She argued that women discuss the world and make judgements using different criteria from men. Her theory has not been supported by other research. Walker (1984) conducted a meta-analysis of 108 studies of morality and found only 8 clear distinctions in terms of gender differences. 

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Beta bias

Beta bias-   When differences between the 2 sexes are ignored or minimised and then generalised to the opposite sex.

The work of Sandra Bem on the concept of androgyny is a good example of the unisex theory. She proposes that the healthiest psychological state is that of androgyny where both genders can select whatever personality traits they wish. Thus they can integrate both gender characteristics to create their own individual identity rather than be constrained by stereotypes.

Negative- it has been pointed out that the theory assumes that male and female qualities are seen as equivalent. However, she herself acknowledges that in a social context male characteristics are seem as more adaptive and valued more.

Gender specific research-  Kohlberg’s theory of moral development (different stages), due to the methodology used his test of morality found women to be morally inferior.

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Evaluation of beta and alpha bias.

Alpha bias can have positive consequences. Theorists such as Gilligan have been able to assert the worth of certain feminine qualities. Alpha bias has also led to a criticism of cultural values which place a high degree of male on male traits such as aggression, self-interest and individualism.

Alpha bias highlights the differences between genders and thus implies similarities within genders. This ignoring the individual differences which make men and women different from other members of the same gender.

Beta bias can have positive qualities, research that sees man and women as the same has led to increased equality in many areas. For example in legal terms and in things such as access to education and employment.

However, it can also be argued that beta bias contributes to the misrepresentations of both genders and thus actually creates or sustains prejudice.

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Extra info

Denmark et al (1988) suggests that gender bias is found at all stages:

Question formation: Gross (2003) points out that topics that are studied in psychological research often reflect he prevalent gender stereotypes of the culture. e.g. leadership, aggression = stereotypically male.

Research design: The experimental approach is a masculine approach based upon logic and rationality rather than the feminine characteristics of caring and relatedness.

Research methods: Rosenthal (1966) found that male researchers were more pleasant, friendly, honest and encouraging with female participants. He suggested that fame and female participants may not be in the same experiment at all' This could explain why some studies discover gender differences that do not exist.

Selection of participants: Psychologists have typical conducted studies using white male undergraduates. These results have then represents 'human behaviour'

Inappropriate conclusions: findings based upon one gender are applied to both,

Publication bias: There is a trend among scientific journals to only publish studies which produce positive results. Tavris (1993) suggested that in relation to gender research it mean that studies show differences are more likely to be publish; producing alpha bias

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Aarti Patel

Uhhhh mazing babygirl ;) xoxoxox

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