Female Privilege: Unpacking the Visible Handbag –

Percy McIntosh

Warning – unlike Peggy McIntosh’s ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’, this contains real data and you may find that distressing.

The popular narrative is that men have it easy and that most societal biases favour the male sex. You can find this pervasive world view reproduced in numerous media outlets; the BBC website, The Guardian, The Independent and The Conversation are to the forefront in the UK.  A common feature of these outlets is that the authors are often female, middle class, privately educated and studied liberal arts subjects at university. In most cases, this was English Literature at Oxford or Cambridge. Scouring the peer-reviewed literature, critical thinking skills and statistical reasoning does not appear to be high on the list of skills that they acquired during their education. 

Here then, is another view from the social sciences literature that paints a very different picture.

The feedback given to women in the workplace is more likely to be upwardly distorted.

In one study graders were presented with equivalent 3rd party generated essays. Participants upwardly distorted their original gender blind assessment of the essays when they discovered the author was female and gave more positive comments to women. The authors also demonstrated a greater propensity to tell white lies (encouragement) to women during performance feedback(1).

Research claims favouring women are more likely to be believed than those favouring men

William Von Hippel and David Buss showed that psychologists were more likely to believe claims that women could have evolved to be more verbally talented than men than they were to believe men evolved to be more mathematically talented than women(2).

Steve Stewart-Williams found a similar effect. When 492 participants were presented with essentially the same study showing that men/women draw better, or men/women lie more, both men and women were more likely to believe the study that favoured women(3).

Similar findings come from another scientific report where fictitious studies relating to male and female intelligence were presented. Participants viewed studies that purported to show the sexes were of equal intelligence or that women were of greater intelligence as being more credible than those that appeared to favour men(4).

Among academics in the United States and the United Kingdom Cory Clark and Bo Winegard  showed (study in press) that there is a stronger desire to censor science that disfavours women compared to men.

Taken together these studies suggest that the public, male and female, are more ready to believe studies that suggest females are smarter than males rather than the opposite.

People care more about female underrepresentation in careers

Research by Katherina Block et al showed that the public is more concerned about gender imbalances in male-dominated professions than it is about imbalances in female-dominated professions(5). Not only that, when the career in question comes with a high salary people were more likely to suggest that barriers were blocking the entry of women.

Female suffering attracts more sympathy than male suffering.

The footbridge and the trolley problems are used to test behaviour of individuals who are faced with moral dilemmas. In the trolley problem, imagine yourself driving a trolley towards five people tied together on the track in front of you.  If you do nothing, the trolley goes along its normal course and all five people will be killed. However, there is an alternative, you could pull the lever and the train will deviate to one side where a single innocent passer-by will be killed. What do you do?

The footbridge problem is similar. You are standing on a footbridge over a rail track and the train is heading towards 5 people tied together. Again, if you do nothing all five will be killed but you could push an innocent bystander over the bridge into the path of the train. If you do, that will slow the train sufficiently to save the lives of the five people on the track. What do you do?

Both thought experiments measure willingness to sacrifice an innocent bystander to save five other people. Although the utilitarian response in both cases is to sacrifice the innocent bystander you would be responsible for the death of that one person. In practice, people vary in their responses. For example, psychopaths are more willing to sacrifice a bystander for the ‘greater good’. Another factor is the gender of the innocent bystander, a male bystander is more likely than a female bystander to be sacrificed to save five lives and this is true for both male and female study participants(6).

Work on the ethical problems of self-driving cars has revealed similar societal biases in favour of women. When deciding how autonomous vehicles should react to choices involving two unavoidable harms; for example saving passengers or pedestrians when a crash imminent, people show a tendency to prioritise saving female lives over male lives(7).

Female victims of sexual assault attract more sympathy.

A study looking at UK police workers’ perception of adult rape according to the victim’s gender and sexuality found that male victims were viewed more negatively irrespective of their sexuality(8).

Women are more likely to receive help than men: men are more likely to give help.

A metanalysis in 1986 looked at 93 studies of a wide range of social situations including donating blood in response to an emergency, helping someone with fallen groceries or helping a student hurt in an experiment. In general, men gave more help and women received more(9). 

Those who harm women are punished more severely than those who harm men.

Curry Lee and Rodriguez studied how sentencing varied according to the sex of the victim using data for offenders convicted of three violent crimes. They found that perpetrators who victimised females received longer sentences than those who victimised males. Male offenders who victimised females received the longest sentences of any pairing(10).

Women are punished less severely than men for the same crime.

A meta-analysis of experimental research on mock juror assessments found that it was advantageous if the defendant was female, physically attractive and of high socioeconomic status(11). These data are consistent with ‘real world’ findings from the United Kingdom where men are twice as likely to be imprisoned for a violent first offence whereas women were twice as likely to receive a conditional discharge or suspended sentence (link here).

Women’s aggression is seen as more acceptable than men’s aggression.

One hundred and seventy-one university students were invited to read vignettes describing acts of violence. The aggressor-target gender combinations were varied. Male and female participants rated women’s aggression as more acceptable(12).

Moral typecasting; women are assumed to be victims and men perpetrators.

A study by Tania Reynolds et al looked at several scenarios and showed that women were more easily seen as victims(13). For example, a female employee making claiming harassment was seen as more of a victim than a male employee making an identical claim also female victims were assumed to experience more pain from an ambiguous joke. Most disturbing to me was that managers were seen as less moral when firing a female employee than a male employee. In short over four countries in studies involving 3,137 participants harm evaluations were systematically swayed by the targets’ gender.

Women have an advantage in hiring decisions in STEM subjects.

A common trope among feminists is that women have to be twice as good as men to get the same job. So where does the evidence point? As usual, it points in the opposite direction.

A study of hiring faculty in STEM subjects showed a substantial preference for hiring women over identically qualified men and the claim that weaker men were promoted over more able women was not supported(14). Another study found a 2:1 preference for hiring women on a STEM tenure track across 370 universities in the USA(15).

1.         Jampol L, Zayas V. Gendered White Lies: Women Are Given Inflated Performance Feedback Compared With Men. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2020 May 18;014616722091662. 

2.         von Hippel W, Buss DM. Do Ideologically Driven Scientific Agendas Impede the Understanding and Acceptance of Evolutionary Principles in Social Psychology? In: Crawford JT, Jussim L, editors. The Politics of Social Psychology [Internet]. 1st ed. NewYork, NY: Routledge, 2017. |: Psychology Press; 2017 [cited 2020 Dec 7]. p. 5–25. Available from: https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781351622561/chapters/10.4324/9781315112619-2

3.         Stewart‐Williams S, Chang CYM, Wong XL, Blackburn JD, Thomas AG. Reactions to male‐favouring versus female‐favouring sex differences: A pre‐registered experiment and Southeast Asian replication. Br J Psychol. 2020 Jul 23;bjop.12463. 

4.         Winegard B, Clark C, Hasty CR. Equalitarianism: A Source of Liberal Bias. SSRN Electron J [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2020 Dec 1]; Available from: https://www.ssrn.com/abstract=3175680

5.         Block K, Croft A, De Souza L, Schmader T. Do people care if men don’t care about caring? The asymmetry in support for changing gender roles. J Exp Soc Psychol. 2019 Jul;83:112–31. 

6.         FeldmanHall O, Dalgleish T, Evans D, Navrady L, Tedeschi E, Mobbs D. Moral Chivalry: Gender and Harm Sensitivity Predict Costly Altruism. Soc Psychol Personal Sci. 2016 Aug;7(6):542–51. 

7.         Awad E, Bonnefon J-F, Shariff A, Rahwan I. The Thorny Challenge of Making Moral Machines: Ethical Dilemmas with Self-Driving Cars. NIM Mark Intell Rev. 2019 Nov 1;11(2):42–7. 

8.         Davies M, Smith R, Rogers P. Police Perceptions of Rape as Function of Victim Gender and Sexuality. Police J Theory Pract Princ. 2009 Mar;82(1):4–12. 

9.         Eagly AH, Crowley M. Gender and helping behavior: A meta-analytic review of the social psychological literature. Psychol Bull. 1986;100(3):283–308. 

10.       Curry TR, Lee G, Rodriguez SF. Does Victim Gender Increase Sentence Severity? Further Explorations of Gender Dynamics and Sentencing Outcomes. Crime Delinquency. 2004 Jul;50(3):319–43. 

11.       Mazzella R, Feingold A. The Effects of Physical Attractiveness, Race, Socioeconomic Status, and Gender of Defendants and Victims on Judgments of Mock Jurors: A Meta-Analysis1. J Appl Soc Psychol. 1994 Aug;24(15):1315–38. 

12.       Stewart-Williams S. Gender, the Perception of Aggression, and the Overestimation of Gender Bias. Sex Roles. 2002;46(5/6):177–89. 

13.       Reynolds T, Howard C, Sjåstad H, Zhu L, Okimoto TG, Baumeister RF, et al. Man up and take it: Gender bias in moral typecasting. Organ Behav Hum Decis Process. 2020 Nov;161:120–41. 

14.       Ceci SJ, Williams WM. Women have substantial advantage in STEM faculty hiring, except when competing against more-accomplished men. Front Psychol. 2015;6:1532. 

15.       Williams WM, Ceci SJ. National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2015 Apr 28;112(17):5360–5. 

By femgoggles

I was abandoned by my parents in the black mountains and raised by timberwolves. On my return to the 'civilised world' with questionable table manners, I became a detached observer of human behaviour in general and gender relations in particular. This blog is the product of those observations.

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