Men seen as knowledgeable, women as lucky — even when they know the same things

Last modified February 9, 2021. Published February 9, 2021.
Women's success gets attributed to luck, while men get credit for brains. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Women's success gets attributed to luck, while men get credit for brains. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

People are more likely to assume that men are knowledgeable on a given topic due to their ability, while women’s knowledge is due to luck, even if they view men and women as being equally proficient on the topic, according to a new study.

In a paper published Jan. 19 in the British Journal of Social Psychology, a team of researchers from the University of Notre Dame tested the effects of gender on knowledge attribution, meaning how people make judgments about what other people know.  

Participants were given information about fictional people performing tasks, with some of the characters having traditionally female names and others having male names. The participants were then instructed to rate the knowledge, comprehension and ability of the person performing the task. 

“As humans, we often have to make judgments about what other people know. These judgments are called knowledge attributions, and they can affect our attitudes, perceptions and even the opportunities we afford other people,” the authors wrote in the paper.

Co-authors Natalie Disher, Antonio Guerra and Gerald Haeffel hypothesized that they would find a gender bias that showed the participants rating the people with female-sounding names as less knowledgeable and less likely to have the correct answer than the people with male-sounding names.

They ultimately found that this was not true, and that the male and female subjects were viewed as being equally knowledgeable. However, the participants attributed knowledge for the female subjects more to luck rather than to ability than they did for the male subjects. 

“Consider how this might play out in the real world: a female and male student both get the same grade on a math test. However, the teacher might attribute the female’s grade to luck, and the male’s grade to ability,” the authors explained to The Academic Times.

“This may lead the teacher to treat the two students differently, like encouraging them to pursue careers in STEM, and even affect how males and females view their own abilities,” they said.

The researchers used a Justified True Belief framework to measure the presence or absence of a gender bias. The Justified True Belief theory says there are three things required to confirm that a person has knowledge: The person must believe a fact to be true, the fact must indeed be true and the person must be justified in their belief.

This belief system was challenged in 1963 by philosopher Edmund Gettier, who identified unique cases in which a person may meet the Justified True Belief requirements, yet is not viewed by others as possessing knowledge.

The authors of the current paper said the Justified True Belief and Gettier case framework are perfectly suited for studying gender biases, and provide a novel strategy for investigating a continuum of gender bias ranging from overt to more covert.

In the study, a total of 358 U.S. adult participants were assigned to three different scenario types, featuring either male or female subjects. The scenarios included a subject acting as an ecologist who attempts to identify certain squirrels among other animals; a subject driving through a tornado-hit area who points out real houses among realistic-looking fake houses; and a subject shopping for a diamond watch in a store with identical fake diamond watches.

The participants were also assigned to one of three knowledge conditions — knowledge, ignorance, or Gettier, representing three different levels of knowledge for the subject of their scenario. The sample was split between subjects with female names and subjects with male names. All participants read a two-paragraph description that varied slightly, detailing the actions and task performance of their subject. 

The participants were significantly more likely to rate the judgments of the subject as due to luck rather than skill in the Gettier condition, where the subject was described to be correct in an assumption despite a failed disruption in the scenario, compared to the knowledge and ignorance conditions. 

And overall, participants were more likely to rate the knowledge of the subject as due to luck rather than skill if their scenario featured someone with a female-sounding name rather than a male-sounding name.

The authors had hypothesized that scenario type would not affect knowledge attributions, but found that different scenarios did elicit different knowledge attributions from participants. Regardless of gendered names, participants attributed less knowledge to all subjects in the jewelry scenario than to subjects in the squirrel and house scenarios, for example. 

The study concluded that it is important to create a standardized set of scenarios to study knowledge attributions, because they found that the scenarios used in prior research differed in comprehension level and caused participants to generate different knowledge attributions. 

“To our knowledge, our study is the first to show that comprehension and knowledge attributions are not robust to scenario type and the agent’s gender,” the authors wrote in the paper. 

The study’s findings suggest that overt forms of gender bias may be fading, but more covert forms still exist, the authors said. There was also no significant difference between the genders of the participants and how they rated the knowledge of the subjects, showing that both men and women can display a form of gender bias against women.

“Our results indicate that gender bias is relatively covert in nature. We did not find differences in the overall level of knowledge attributed to male and female [subjects], but rather a bias in how that knowledge was perceived,” the authors said in the paper. “Thus, people may not be aware that they exhibit this bias.”

The researchers proposed that teachers could deter gender bias in grading by having students show their work and by removing names during grading. The removal of names may also help fight gender bias in hiring decisions and prevent a candidate’s accomplishments from being attributed to luck rather than skill.

“Every day, we make judgments about other people and what they know. These judgments influence how we treat people (e.g., accepting them into college, hiring them, promoting them) as well as how we view their advice and expertise (e.g., medical advice to wear masks, take vaccines, etc.),” the authors said.

“As psychologists, we want to determine the best way to measure knowledge attributions and also understand the factors that affect how we view each other. We hope that our study highlights the importance of finding creative ways to detect biases as they may not always be overt,” they said.

The study, “Men have ability, women are lucky: A pre‐registered experiment examining gender bias in knowledge attribution,” was published in the British Journal of Social Psychology on Jan. 19. Gerald Haeffel, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, Natalie Disher, a recent graduate from the University of Notre Dame, and Antonio Guerra, a current student at the University of Notre Dame, all served as co-authors.

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