An article in this week’s Economist confirms what Avenue Q fans have suspected all along: everyone’s a little bit racist (not to mention sexist, ageist and superficial). According to behavioural scientists, we’re all a little more prejudiced than we’d like to let on. A series of new studies reveals the surprisingly large dichotomy between what we say and what we do:
When it came to salary, location and holiday, the students’ decisions matched their stated preferences. However, the boss’s sex turned out to be far more important than they said it was (this was true whether a student was male or female). In effect, they were willing to pay a 22% tax on their starting salary to have a male boss.
The results/methodology of these studies don’t seem to be particularly novel to me. In fact, I think I remember reading about something similar called the Harvard Implicit Association Tests in Blink. (If you haven’t already, click on the link to find take an online IAT test- definitely worth doing).
Regardless of their novelty, the survey has some interesting implications.
I have to say that I was genuinely surprised that people would be willing to pay a 22% tax in salary, in order to work for a male boss. That particualar result absolutely boggles my mind. Maybe because I’m a woman (and also because I’ve worked with some very competent women), I have a hard time believing that any student my age would really consider the sex of his boss as a job search criteria. I’d love to hear more about the rationale behind this particular prejudice. Is it an overall competence thing? Do people think women are particularly bad leaders? Is it a nostalgic homage to the Mad Men world, where everyone imagines their first boss to be some incarnation of Don Draper. Did the men and women equally prefer a male boss? Or was it a case of male students not wanting to work under a female? As a woman
What part of these results are really a function of “subconscious” bias versus an unwillingness to be seen as prejudice on a survey (i.e. a Bradley effect type phenomenon)? I bet there are a least a few people who wouldn’t answer a survey question 100% truthfully for fear of social judgement.
If we are to believe these survey results, then the question becomes: how do you begin to eliminate systemic prejudice that is so engrained we don’t even know that it’s there? How do you get rid of something that’s essentially a subconscious thought process in someone’s head? If nothing else, this evidence confirms the dangers of reinforcing commonly-assumed cultural stereotypes- no matter how glib the context, apparently our brains absorb the content. [I wonder if this is the real rationale for these conversation cops?]