Wilkins, Alumni Author Paper on Consequences of Perceived Anti-Male Bias

Clara Wilkins, assistant professor of psychology, has studied perceptions of discrimination against whites and other groups who hold positions of relative advantage in society—such as heterosexuals and men—since she was a graduate student at the University of Washington. She became became interested in the topic of perceptions of bias against high status groups after hearing Glenn Beck call president Barack Obama racist. (Photo by Olivia Drake)

Clara Wilkins

Men in the U.S. today increasingly believe themselves to be victims of gender discrimination, and there are a record number of recent lawsuits claiming anti-male bias. In a study published in March in Psychology of Men and MasculinityAssistant Professor of Psychology Clara Wilkins and her co-authors assess the consequences of these perceptions of anti-male bias. Are men who perceive discrimination more likely to discriminate against women? How do beliefs about societal order affect men’s evaluations of men and women?

The article is co-authored by former post-doctoral fellow Joseph Wellman, now an assistant professor at California State University–San Bernardino, Erika Flavin ’14, and Juliana Manrique ’15, MA ’16.

In a blog post on the study, the authors write:

Traditionally men have had higher status than women in the U.S.; they have been better educated, more likely to be employed, and have tended to earn more than women with the same job and qualifications. People vary in the extent to which they believe that this particular ordering of society is fair and the way things should be. Some believe this type of inequality is legitimate, while others believe it should change. We expected that men who believed men should have higher status in society would be most upset about the thought that men now experience discrimination, and that they would react by favoring men over equally-qualified women. This effort would be a way to reestablish men’s perceived rightful place in society.

They conducted two studies to test this prediction. In the first, male participants read an article about increasing bias against men or another group, and then were asked to evaluate the résumé of a man or woman as part of an ostensibly unrelated study. The résumés were identical except for the name and gender. The researchers found that men who believe the social hierarchy is fair tended to give more negative evaluations of the female candidate relative to the male candidate after reading about bias against men. They also showed less desire to help the female candidate. The same effect wasn’t seen after male participants read about bias against an unrelated group. The researchers conclude that beliefs about the legitimacy of the hierarchy and perceptions of bias against men together seemed to disadvantage women.

In a second study, the researchers manipulated participants’ beliefs about society’s fairness by having them create sentences by unscrambling strings of randomly ordered words that suggested system legitimacy. For example, they created sentences like “effort leads to prosperity” – which makes people believe that hard work in society is rewarded. Or, they unscrambled other words to create neutral sentences unrelated to society. Unscrambling system-legitimizing sentences caused participates to believe the social structure is legitimate, and in turn, caused those primed to perceive discrimination against men to more negatively evaluate female targets. They also reported being less willing to help the female targets than male targets.

The researchers gave participants an opportunity to provide feedback on how to improve targets’ resumes. Those primed with beliefs that the social structure is legitimate reacted to perceiving bias against men by providing more constructive feedback to male targets than female targets. They write that these findings are striking, as the resumes were identical – only the names varied.

This research suggests that men who believe that men should be high-status in society react to perceiving bias against men by engaging in efforts to maintain men’s position of power. These individuals may be unaware that they favor their own group or disadvantage women; they may simply perceive that they are righting a perceived wrong. However, this explanation was not supported by other research results. When the researchers primed men to perceive discrimination against women, they did not react by favoring women over men. It seems as though they are uniquely concerned about maintaining their own group’s position in society, they write.

The researchers conclude that when high-status individuals perceive increasing bias against their group, those who endorse the legitimacy of the social hierarchy may perpetuate social disparities. Thus, if men increasingly perceive discrimination against their group, they may be more inclined to discriminate against women and provide other men with an extra boost. They recommend adopting hiring and evaluation processes that mask gender to prevent these potentially deleterious effects of perceiving bias against men.

Read the complete research article here.