Gender Bias


Universality and Bias

Universality: Any underlying characteristics of human beings capable of being applied to all, despite differences of experience and upbringing. Gender bias and culture bias threaten the universality of findings in psychology.

  • Psychologist’s beliefs and values have been influenced by the social and historical context within which they live.
  • Bias is inevitable despite claims that psychologists have discovered "facts" that are "objective" & "value free"
  • This bias underlines psychology’s claims towards UNIVERSALITY 
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Gender Bias

Gender bias: When psychological research or theory offers a view that does not justifiably represent the experience and behaviour of men & women (usually women).

Alpha bias: Psychological theories that suggest there are real and enduring differences between men & women. These enhance or undervalue members of either sex, but typically undervalue females. Such differences are typically presented as real and enduring, fixed and inevitable. Although these differences may occasionally heighten the value of women, they are more likely to devalue females in relation to their male counterparts. 

Beta bias: Theories that ignore or minimise differences between the sexes.This often occurs when female participants are not included as part of the research process and then it is assumed that research findings apply to both sexes. 

Andocentrism: Male-centred; when ‘normal’ behaviour is judged according to a male standard (meaning that female behaviour is often judged to be ‘abnormal’ or ‘deficient’ by comparison).

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Examples of Gender Bias

Alpha: Wilson (1975) The Sociobiological theory of relationship formation. This explains human sexual attraction and behaviour through the principle of ‘survival efficiency’. For Males it is best to try to impregnate as many women as possible to increase the gen survival chances, For Females, the best chance of preserving their genes is to ensure the healthy survival of the few offspring she can produce in her lifetime.

The central premise of the theory is that sexual promiscuity in males is genetically determined whilst female promiscuity is going against their ‘nature’. This s exaggeration of the differences between males and females is Alpha bias.

Beta: Fight and flight response. Early research was based exclusively on male animals (preferred because female hormones fluctuate) and was assumed to be a universal response to a threatening situation. Shelley (2000) suggests that female biology has evolved to inhibit the fight or flight response, shifting attention towards the offspring (tending) and forming defensive networks with other females (befriending).

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Application Studies for Gender Bias

Freudian theory: Because a girl does not experience castration anxiety in the phallic stage of psychosexual development, she is not under the same pressure as the boy to form an identification with the same-sex parent. This has impications for the development of the female superego. The girl forms a weaker superego than her male counterpart and therefore the sense of morality she acquires is inferior to that of the male.

Kohlberg Vs Gilligan: Kohlberg proposed a stage theory of moral development based entirely on the longitudinal study of a sample of American men. Kohlberg's research was based on male-oreintated principles - though he argued such principles were universal and represented the moral reasoning of both males and females.

Gilligan attacked Kohlberg for the absence of female participants within his research.

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Consequences of Beta Bias

One possible consequence of beta bias is ANDOCENTRISM. If our understanding of what counts as ‘normal’ behaviour is drawn from all-male research then any behaviour that deviates could be judged as ‘abnormal’, inferior’ or ‘deficient’. At best this leads to female behaviour being misunderstood, at worst, pathologised (taken as a sign of psychological disability or disorder).


Female commentators have objected to the diagnostic category for PMS (Pre-menstrual syndrome) on the grounds it stereotypes and trivialises females experience of it. Critics claim that PMS is a social construction which medicalises female emotions, especially anger, by explaining it in hormonal terms. Male anger, however, is explained by external pressures

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Evaluation of Gender Bias

  • Implications of gender bias - Misleading assumptions about female behaviour fail to challenge negative stereotypes & validate discrimination. It provides a scientific "justifiation" to deny women opportunities within the workplace or in wider society. As men set the standard of normalcy it makes normal for women to feel abnormal. Gender bias is not just a methodological problem but may have damaging consequences on the lives and prospects of real women.
  • Sexism within the research process - Lack of women appointed at senior reserch levels means that female concerns may not be reflected in the research question. Male researchers are more likely to have their work published & studies that find evidence of gender difference appear in journal articles more than those that don't. Lab experiments may further disadvantage women as female participants are placed in an inequitable relationship with the usually male researcher who has the power to label them unreasonable , irrational and unable to complete complex tasks.This is a weakness as it suggests Psychology may be guilty of supporting institutional sexism.
  • Reflexivity - Modern researchers beginning to recognise the effect of their own values and assumptions have on the nature of their wok. Rather than seeing it as a problem for objectivity they embrace it as a crucial & critical aspect of the researher process in general. 
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Evaluation of Gender Bias (continued)

Reflexivity - In a study the lack of women in executive positions in accountancy firms researchers include reflection on how their gender-related experiences influence their reading of events.This is a strength as it is important in the development in Psychology & may lead to greater awareness of the role of personal biases in shaping research in the future

Essentialism - Gender differences reported are based on an essentialist perspective - that gender difference is inevitable and "fixed". Walkerdine reports how, in the 1930s, "scientific" research revealed how intellectual activity (e.g. going to university) woud shrivel a woman's ovaries & harm her chances of giving birth. These accounts are often politically motivated arguments disguised as biological "facts". This often creates a "double standard"in the way that the same behaviour is viewed from a male and female perspective.

Feminist psychology - Worrel and other feminist commentators have put forward criteria that should be adhered to in order to avoid gender bias in research. Women should be studied within meaningful real-life contexts, & genuinely participate in research, rather than being the objects of study. Diversity within groups of women should be examined, rather than comparisons made between women & men. Finally, there should be greater emphasis placed on collaborative research methods that collect qualitative data. 

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