Many media outlets have criticized Today show host Matt Lauer for treating Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump differently when he moderated NBCs Commander-in-Chief Forum earlier this month. Whether consciously or not, Lauer behaved toward the presidential candidates in a way that was consistent with much of the research about gender stereotypes and discrimination. Specifically, he interrupted Clinton more often than Trump, asked her more challenging questions, and questioned her statements more often.
These differences in the treatment of men and women are robust, research shows. Take the issue of interruption, for instance. In a well-known study conducted back in 1975, sociologists Don Zimmerman and Candace West of the University of California, Santa Barbara systematically examined interruptions by men and women during conversations. They visited various public places, from coffee shops to drugstores, and surreptitiously recorded any two-person conversations they overheard. Their final sample was rather small (31 dialogues in total), but the results are still worth noting: In mixed-sex conversations, men were responsible for all but one of the 48 interruptions they overheard.
These findings have been replicated in more recent research. In a 2014 study conducted by linguist Adrienne Hancock of George Washington University, 40 people (men and women) were recruited to engage in two short conversations, one with a man and one with a woman. The results? Women were interrupted significantly more often than men. If a mans conversational partner was female, he interrupted her, on average, 2.1 times over the course of a three-minute dialogue; if his counterpart was male, however, that number was 1.8 times. Women, too, were less likely to interrupt men than women. They interrupted an average of 2.9 times if their partner was female and just once, on average, if their partner was male.
Such differences in the treatment of men and women are often rooted in unconscious biases that all of us fall prey to. Unconscious bias is rooted in our perceptions of others, which can harden into stereotypes and prejudice over time. Bias becomes the lens through which we process information and make decisions. We generally think of skin color, gender, nationality, and age when we consider bias, but unconscious prejudice can affect how we view many other characteristics, including aspects of peoples appearance (height and weight) and personality (introversion and extroversion).
In one well-documented experiment, described in Sheryl Sandbergs book Lean In, Harvard MBA students evaluated the same case study of a successful entrepreneur. Half the class read a version in which the entrepreneur was male; the other half read a version in which the entrepreneur was female. The students who read about the male entrepreneur identified him as having positive traits, such as leadership and direction, while students who read about the female entrepreneur characterized her as being bossy and overly direct. The responses reflected the students hidden biases about how male and female leaders should act.
We may think that we ourselves are immune to such bias, but we arent. (If you are unconvinced, try taking an online Implicit Association Test to learn how persistent these biases can be.) Do we hire or promote people who look like us? Do we talk to men and women differently? Do our stereotypical views affect the job assignments and opportunities we give to our staff? The likely answer to all of these questions is yes.
We are subject to bias even in high-stakes situations, as in the case of the Commander-in-Chief Forum. In fact, given the anxiety and stress such events inspire, we are even more likely to fall prey to biases in high- rather than low-stakes situations despite the common belief that well work harder to avoid being biased in stressful situations. Under stress, the brain processes information less rationally, thus increasing our likelihood of relying on stereotypes and heuristics.For instance, in research I conducted with Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School and Maurice Schweitzer of Wharton, we found that when people feel anxious, as compared to when they are in a neutral emotional state, they are unable to evaluate the quality of the information that they receive from others or see potential conflicts of interest, and this is costly to their decisions.
What we can do to prevent these widespread biases from affecting what we say and do? First, we need to be aware of these biases and how they operate. And we need to have the humility to recognize that they affect us in the same way that they affect other people. Theres some compelling evidence, in fact, that the more convinced we are of our own objectivity, the more likely bias is to creep in and influence our judgment and decisions.
Second, we can try to train our brain to make counter-stereotypical associations. Exposing people to counter-stereotypic examples of group members is one way to accomplish such type of training. In one experiment, for example, people showed measurably less implicit bias toward Asian Americans after they watched The Joy Luck Club, a movie that offered a nuanced portrait of Asian immigrants to the United States.
Third, we can try individuation, which involves seeking specific information about members of a group to which we dont belong to learn about their preferences and common behaviors, as well as the specifics about their ways of thinking. This tactic allows us to recognize people based upon their personal attributes rather than based on stereotypes about groups to which they belong.
Fourth, we can try to take the perspective of those with whom we interact. Ask yourself what your perspective might be if you were in the other persons shoes. By doing so, you can develop a better appreciation of that persons concerns. Perspective taking raises our level of empathy for others and debiases our thoughts about them. In the process, stereotyping is likely to dissipate.