by Dr Tania Reynolds
A cursory glance through recent news articles surrounding gender suggests women are struggling in modern society, and uniformly have it worse than men. Indeed, there are many contexts where women are disadvantaged, such as the pattern of fewer female world leaders, CEOs, and full professors. At the top of the societal distribution, men are overrepresented, which is certainly worthy of attention and concern. However, if one were to take a careful look at the bottom of the societal distribution, they might be surprised to see men are also overrepresented. For example, compared to women, men are more likely to be homeless, suffer from substance abuse, commit suicide, drop out of high school, never attend college, be imprisoned, and even die 5 years sooner on average.
Why is it that the social discrepancies whereby men are disproportionately afflicted receive significantly less attention? A reader might espouse the argument, “well these are issues under men’s control”. Perhaps that is true, to some degree. However, there are some cases where these discrepancies are at least partially the result of active biases. For example, legal research demonstrates that men receive longer prison sentences than do women, even when they commit identical crimes (Mazella & Feingold, 1994; Mustard, 2001). Why then, do we fail to recognize these cases where men are suffering?
Researchers in cognitive moral psychology have discovered that when people evaluate situations in which harm occurs, they instinctively cast the involved parties into one of two roles: intentional perpetrator and suffering victim (Gray & Wegner, 2009). That is, the human mind naturally perceives moral actions through a dyadic template, such that we assume those involved are either the harm-inflicting agent or the harm-experiencing patient. Moreover, once we cast a target as a perpetrator, it is incredibly difficult to subsequently view them as a victim, and vice versa.
In our research, we tested the hypothesis that the application of this cognitive template might be biased by gender (Reynolds, Howard, Sjastad, Okimoto, Baumeister, Aquino, & Kim, 2019) Specifically, we predicted that people more readily place men in the role of perpetrator and women in the role of suffering victim. If so, this tendency might suggest it is challenging for us to perceive men as victims and respond compassionately to their suffering.
To test this hypothesis, we had participants evaluate situations involving workplace harm, such as a surgeon bullying their surgical trainee. We manipulated whether we referred to the targets in the scenarios as either victim and perpetrator or more neutrally, “party A or B”. We asked participants to recall whether the harmed target was male or female, even though the scenario never mentioned this. Across the different scenarios, we found that people overwhelmingly assumed the harmed target was female, but especially when we labeled the targets as perpetrator/victim. This finding suggests we more easily place women in the victim role. Moreover, when participants assumed the harm target was female, they felt more warmly towards her and perceived her as more moral, compared to when they assumed the harmed target was male.
In another study, we had participants evaluate an ambiguous joke made in the workplace. This time, we manipulated the sex of both the employee making the off-colored joke and the recipient of the statement. Participants assumed a female employee who heard the joke experienced more pain than a male recipient of the identical statement.
Moreover, participants also shifted their perceptions of the employee making the joke. When a man made the joke, participants were more willing to punish him, less willing to forgive him, less willing to work with him, and less willing to nominate him for a leadership position, compared to a woman who made the same exact joke. These patterns suggest we not only more easily recognize harm to women, we also more strongly desire to punish men, a response typical to those placed in the perpetrator role.
We then wanted to explore whether this pattern holds for groups of men or women. We had participants evaluate a scenario where a managerial team needed to make the decision to fire a group of employees whose jobs were redundant. We manipulated whether those fired employees were male or female, but kept everything else identical. Participants assumed the fired female employees suffered more pain than the fired male employees, even though real world data suggests men who lose their job suffer worse outcomes (Wang, Lesage, Schmitz, Drapeau, 2008).
Moreover, participants also differentially judged the managerial team based on our manipulation. Managers who fired women were assumed to have inflicted more harm, to have made a more unfair decision, and to be less moral. This pattern suggests we not only more easily recognize female suffering, but also more harshly judge those who inflict suffering onto women than those who inflict suffering onto men.
Altogether, this body of findings indicates that our application of moral typecasting is biased by gender. We more readily place women in the victim role, which makes us more sensitized to their suffering. We also more readily place men into the perpetrator role, which makes us more inclined to punish and blame them.
This gender bias in moral typecasting has many important implications. It suggests that when we encounter men’s suffering, we will be less inclined to notice it, perceive it as unjust, or feel motivated to alleviate it.
Our findings may help explain the asymmetric discussion surrounding gender differences in social outcomes. It is cognitively easier for us to detect women’s suffering and respond with sympathy and aid. However, when we learn these statistics about the negative outcomes suffered by men, we are less inclined to view men as victims, and might instead, either overlook the suffering or just blame it on men themselves.
Dr Tania Reynolds will be giving a talk on this topic at the Male Psychology Conference at UCL, 21-22 June 2019.
About the author
Tania Reynolds received her PhD in Social Psychology from Florida State University under Dr. Roy Baumeister and Dr. Jon Maner. Her research examines how pressure to compete for social and romantic partners asymmetrically affects the competitive behaviors and well-being of men and women.
Through a joint appointment with the Gender Studies department, Reynolds offers courses on human sexuality and sex/gender differences. As a collaborative research team with Justin Garcia and Amanda Gesselman, Reynolds hopes to examine the dispositional predictors and physiological correlates of individuals’ romantic relationship experiences, as well as how these associations may differ across gender and sexual orientation.
Gray, K., & Wegner, D. M. (2009). Moral typecasting: divergent perceptions of moral agents and moral patients. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 505-520.
Mazzella, R., & Feingold, A. (1994). The effects of physical attractiveness, race, socioeconomic status, and gender of defendants and victims on judgments of mock jurors: A meta‐analysis. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 24, 1315-1338.
Mustard, D. B. (2001). Racial, ethnic, and gender disparities in sentencing: Evidence from the US federal courts. The Journal of Law and Economics, 44, 285-314.
Reynolds, T., Howard, C., Sjastad, H., Okimoto, T., Baumeister, R. F., Aquino, K., & Kim, J. (invited revision). Man up and take it: Gender bias in moral typecasting.
Wang, J., Lesage, A., Schmitz, N., & Drapeau, A. (2008). The relationship between work stress and mental disorders in men and women: findings from a population-based study. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 62, 42-47.