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Chapter 3. Micro aggression and persistent social norms

Updated: Oct 7, 2020

How do double standards and microaggression contribute to gender discrimination? What role does the threat of (intellectual) judgement or microaggression by colleagues and superiors play in discouraging women from speaking up and/or progressing with their careers altogether? Do we have this issue in economics and if yes, what can we do about it? How important is female rivalry? Are we encouraging or discouraging one another? How gender biased are women? Or: when are we collectively going to give ourselves a break from societal norms?

Spoiler alert! We did not manage to address all of the above questions. But we feel that by asking them anyway, we induce a thinking process desperately needed to combat subconscious biases in everyone's minds. So let's jump in!

Subconscious gender biases are in everyone's head. 

In our virtual workshop, we asked the question: how does the stereotype bias, that is, men or women feeling that they have to conform to a particular behavior expected of them based on their gender identity, affect behavior and career progression? Overall, the research we discussed was quite depressing. The bottom line is that persistent social norms still dictate gender stereotypes and subconscious gender biases are literally everywhere, in women's and men's heads, in peers' and superiors' heads. They do result in double standards: the same acts by men and women are perceived (and reimbursed) differently, and natural behavior is strongly affected by such persistent norms. 

There is a gender self-promotion bias.

Exley & Kessler (2019) find that women rate their performance less favorably than equally performing men in a strategic setting in which information disclosure can increase agents' own payoffs. The self-promotion bias persists even after disclosing information on performance ranking relative to other participants. The authors show that this is not driven by a gender difference in confidence, in willingness to inflate self-assessments for personal gain, in beliefs about how employers interpret self-promotion, or in beliefs about the level of self-promotion chosen by others. Because of the prevalence of self-promotion opportunities, this self-promotion gap may contribute to persistent gender gaps in labor market outcomes. 

Exley & Kessler (2019)
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Women face social backlash for being successful in a male-stereotyped task.

Heilman et al. (2004) investigate 242 subjects' reactions to a woman's success in a male gender-stereotyped job and found that women face social backlash for being successful in the sense that they are less liked and more personally derogated than equivalently successful men. Furthermore, this backlash is specific to success at tasks that are stereotypically considered to be male. Lastly, being disliked may be hampering career progression through overall worse evaluation or recommendation outcomes about organizational reward allocation. These biased evaluations have been attributed to cognitive distortions leading to a perpetuation of women's negative expectations, which in turn result from the inconsistency between stereotypical perceptions of what women are like and the qualities thought necessary to perform a stereotypically male job. 

A woman's success, the narrative goes, can then create new problems for her by instigating social rejection. When a woman is acknowledged to have been successful at performing stereotyped male work, she is, by definition, thought to have the attributes necessary to execute the tasks and responsibilities required effectively. But it is these same attributes that violate gender-prescriptive norms. A successful woman then faces backlash for the mismatch between the skill she has developed to be successful and what society expects a woman's skills to be. Note that there is no difference between men and women in their reaction to successful women, so bias is rooted in both. This supports the hypothesis that gender stereotypes may lead to biased performance evaluations of women even when competence at the task at hand has been proven. 

Direct, but don't be directive.

Rudman & Glick (2001) argue that women have to fight implicit (i.e. subconscious) beliefs as they attempt to rise to authority and leadership positions. In particular, "(...) [t]he prescription to "be feminine" while simultaneously fulfilling agentic requisites is akin to walking a delicate tightrope, where the consequences of losing one's balance are both social and economic. By placing women in double jeopardy, the mandate to "direct while not being directive" is also costly psychologically and in terms of mental resources." The authors argue that if women fail to soften female agency to morph it into a behavior considered sufficiently feminine, a backlash impairing women's ability to achieve economic parity is unavoidable. "If the trend toward feminization of management continues to gain currency within multinational corporations without recognition of this double standard, then women's uphill climb to equality may grow steeper before it becomes easier."

Rudman & Glick (2001)
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In the ensuing discussion, it was mentioned that it would be interesting to see at which stage of the career backlash against non-stereotypical women starts. We discussed this question in greater detail in our June workshop. 

How vital is discrimination avoidance by women?

It was also pointed out that economics is a social science so on top of providing hard evidence, we also need to sell stories which offers scope for discrimination as, for example, women might face a harder time having their stories accepted or believed by facing an overly harsh or doubtful audience. Dupas et al. (2019) offer evidence of such biases in the audience of economics seminars. To overcome this potential subconscious bias, the profession needs to aim for more objective criteria, but this is hard in reality. An interesting point to note is that there might be a selection of women into fields where success is less story-based. For example, female researchers are much more abundant in development economics where research discussions are more method- and less story-based as for example in macroeconomics where women are rarer. Could this be a discrimination avoidance strategy? At this point, the answer is: maybe. 

Relatedly, we discussed that the potential effect of a threat of judgment or microaggression on women's behavior is tough to measure because we lack the proper counterfactual. Women might shy away from self-promotion because they want to avoid "putting themselves out there" and risk being rejected by their peer group of colleagues. Such avoidance behavior, which comes from self-observation and speaking to friends and colleagues outside the field, is wide-spread. This is a dilemma because "leaning in", seizing the day, pushing for professional goals is all good and fair, but social backlash in whatever form it may come is not peanuts either. The struggle is real. 

Women do not favor one another.

Next, Abrevaya & Hamermesh (2012) investigate whether women are more or less generous than men in marking up-or-down recommendations about others' work and whether their degree of generosity is affected by the gender of those whose output they are asked to judge. Underlying these questions is the notion that, similar to religious sects, the degree of solidarity within a group could be a function of its relative size; that is, smaller groups might be more cohesive and more likely to favor other members of the group. Whereas many previous studies have found differences in altruism by gender, the authors examine a unique and substantial sample on author-referee outcomes in a high-stakes field environment and find no evidence of gender differences. Even accounting for the idiosyncrasies of both the judge and the judged, they still see no such distinctions. Moreover, there is no evidence of relative favoritism toward one's own gender by either men or women.  

Abrevaya & Hamermesh (2016)
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Women are treated less respectfully than men in economics seminars. 

Dupas et al (2019) find that, on average, female presenters are asked 3.5 additional questions compared to male presenters (a 12 percent increase). Although female presenters attract larger audiences, the gender disparity in the number of items asked appears to be driven by male faculty asking more questions. Rather than deferring or ignoring these additional questions, women answer them, although this does not significantly impact the share of the time devoted to questions during the seminar. Women receive a more significant number of suggestions and clarifying questions as well as questions rated as patronizing or hostile. Overall, the questions asked of female presenters are more likely to be rated "unfair" by coders — particularly during job market talks.

Dupas et al. (2019)
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How can we improve our seminar culture?

In the ensuing discussion, we talked about our impression of the seminars we regularly visit. It was noted that it takes only one person to ruin the seminar atmosphere from "conducive to exchange" to "hostile". However, it would only take one (senior) professor to stand up to the bully to ease the tension -- which is not what usually happens. It was brought up that managing seminars is very important for the type of exchange that can occur. Stressing the value of useful (not self-representing or condescending) questions could go a long way towards this goal by simultaneously discouraging bullying and specifically inviting people less prone to speak up to do so. In general, our impression was that Zoom meetings make it harder for women to intervene because it often requires a conscious effort to assert yourself, an agentic requisite we agree can be hard to go through with sometimes. We discussed that this mantra "girls ought to be silent and smiling while guys are wild and allowed to take pioneering risks" might be deeply entrenched in us. And the difficulty in situations like seminars (where asking a question may sometimes feel like taking a pioneering risk and putting yourself out there) could stem from these deeply rooted (non-)beliefs/automatisms. 

Overall, a good way to go would be to have an agreed-upon "code of conduct" for seminars that is well-thought-out and aims to generate an environment that is as natural and inclusive as possible. 

The Apéro

Finally, during our Apéro, we had an amazing Q&A session with Prof. Kenza Benhima who generously shared her experiences with us and answered our many questions. The content shared remains private.


American Economic Association. AEA Policy on Harassment and Discrimination.

Abrevaya, J., & Hamermesh, D. (2012). Charity and Favoritism in the Field: Are Female Economists Nicer to Each Other? The Review of Economics and Statistics, 94(1), 202-207.

Pascaline Dupas, Alicia Modestino, Muriel Niederle, and Justin Wolfers (2019). Gender and the Dynamics of Economics Seminars.

Exley, Christine L., and Judd B. Kessler (2019). The gender gap in self-promotion. No. w26345. National Bureau of Economic Research.

Heilman, M. E., Wallen, A. S., Fuchs, D., & Tamkins, M. M. (2004). Penalties for Success: Reactions to Women Who Succeed at Male Gender-Typed Tasks. Journal of Applied Psychology 89(3): 416–42.

Rudman, L A and P Glick (2001). Prescriptive Gender Stereotypes and Backlash Toward Agentic Women. Journal of Social Issues 57(4): 743–762.

Shinall, Jennifer Bennett (2018). Dealing with sexual harassment. CSWEP News, Issue I, American Economic Association Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession.

The Economist (2020). Despite #MeToo, opinions on sexual harassment have barely budged.

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