Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Feb 07, 2019

Gender Segregation: A Matter of Personal Choice or Gender Stereotypes?

A group of girls work on a computer task together

Why are some careers still segregated by gender? Given the political and social equality women have achieved, it is surprising that that there are still so few women in science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM), and other high-earning positions. On the surface, this discrepancy suggests that men and women are simply better suited for, and want to work in different fields. Canada Research Chair in Social Psychology Toni Schmader’s (University of British Columbia) talk entitled “Norms of Exclusions, Norms of Acceptance: How Environments Cue Fit for Women in STEM” at the Gender Preconference, challenges this assumption. The real reason behind gender segregation may instead have to do with perceived fit between our authentic selves, and our environment.

According to previous research, we choose environments wherein we feel authentic, and feel there is ‘fit’ between the environment and the self. We look for self-concept fit (i.e., does this domain fit with who I am?), goal fit (i.e, does this role afford my goals?), and social fit (i.e., will the people in this domain respect me?). In short, perceived fit, informed by gender stereotypes, tells people where they will be accepted, which might influence their career choices. In line with this, Schmader’s work shows that social fit in the workplace (conceptualized as respect and acceptance from male collogues), predicts daily social identity threat (the feeling that you are being judged based on your social identity, in this case gender), which in turn predicts daily psychological burnout.

What are the consequences of attributing gender segregation to personal choice rather than external barriers? Do the explanations we give for the causes of gender segregation determine how we respond? When we attribute gender segregation to external barriers, we may be better able to suppress bias. If we contribute gender segregation to personal choice, then we may justify the segregation. Schmader studied how implicit bias and explicit explanations for gender segregation contributed to decisions made by committees granting research-only positions for STEM faculty members. The researchers found that there was no main effect of implicit bias (the persons perceptions that men are more suited to STEM), but the effect was moderated by explicit explanations for gender segregation. Specifically, when a committee member attributed segregation to external barriers, implicit bias did not predict their decisions. Among committee members who attributed segregation to personal choice, implicit bias predicted their decisions, making them relatively more biased against women.

This research illuminates how the choices we make can be constrained by gender stereotypes that inform us of where we belong. When we attribute these decisions to free choice rather than external barriers, we both reinforce these stereotypes, contribute to, and justify gender segregation.

Written by: Adrianna Tassone

Presentation: “Norms of Exclusions, Norms of Acceptance: How Environments Cue Fit for Women in STEM” presented during the symposium, “Gender Biases and Gender-Based Harassment: Where Are We Now?” at the Gender Preconference on Feb. 7th, 2019.

Speaker: Toni Schmader, University of British Columbia



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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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