Despite decades of striving toward equality, gender biases appear prevalent amongst researchers in psychology. In a recently published study, the investigators found that psychology researchers most often compare females against an implicit male norm, rather than on their own or vice-a-versa.
When research finds that men and women differ psychologically, which group seems to be more responsible for the difference? Where gender differences were observed in the research examined, they were described as being about males, and less often than as being about females. Males are seen as the standard for the typical human subject. The research was published in the Review of General Psychology, by University of Surrey (UK) psychologists Peter Hegarty and Carmen Buechel. The authors systematically surveyed forty years of gender difference research in four journals published by the American Psychological Association.
“Even the graphs and tables show evidence of the male-norm effect” said Hegarty. “About three quarters of these positioned men’s data first, and made women the second sex. But this effect was reversed when psychologists depicted data about parents.” The conclusion? Men may be the prototype for modern psychology’s picture of the typical person, but mothers remain the most typical kind of parent.
The data are all the more striking as between 1965 and 2004 the journals studied ceased to be male-dominated. Roughly equal numbers of the study authors and roughly equal numbers of the participants in the studies now published in these journals are male and female. Hegarty doesn’t find it surprising that this shift in the body politic of psychology didn’t undo the male-norm effect. “In laboratory experiments, both women and men tend to spontaneously explain gender differences using a male norm and to attribute differences to females to the same degree. In our study, male and female authors of psychology articles focused their explanations on women to the same degree. Psychologists are not always aware of their implicit decisions about who to explain.”
Is the focus on women and girls a problem? Probably.
Hegarty has shown in other research on sexual orientation differences that stereotype-relevant results are explained in ways that perpetuate stereotypes about the group that is not taken as the norm; lesbians and gay men, in that case. Hegarty and Buechel also found that psychologists vastly preferred the phrase ‘more than’ over ‘less than’ when explaining gender differences. Put this together with the male-norm effect and you could reach the absurd conclusion that women and girls have more psychology than men and boys do.
Hegarty, a social psychologist himself, is optimistic about what the findings imply for the status of psychology. “They clearly show an area where more critical thinking is needed about gender, but on the other hand psychological methods allowed us to bring this issue to light and to describe it. Our conclusion is not that psychologists should not study group differences, but that we serve the public better when we think deeply about the ways that we implicitly frame questions about whose behavior is the default standard norm and whose is made the subject of psychological scrutiny.”