Last week, researchers at the University of Illinois and Arizona State University sparked a hurricane of controversy when they examined six decades of hurricane death rates according to gender.
The researchers determined that implicit sexism leads to sluggish responses to hurricane warnings, indirectly causing an increase in the rate of weather-related deaths.
According to the study, when people hear about incipient hurricanes that are named for women, they tend to ignore the warning signals. Instead of recognizing the storms as fearsome foes, they subconsciously deem them as harmless, because of their underlying impression of women as warm and non-aggressive.
In other words, hurricanes with male names carry more authority and earn the respect due to them, while female-named hurricanes are less likely to secure the appropriate degree of respect and fear. Therefore, the study’s authors suggests that public figures consider giving every hurricane a male name.
The backlash against this study has been forceful, with members of the public questioning and ridiculing the researchers’ methods and conclusions. The researchers have responded by defending the veracity of their calculations. They insist that implicit biases are real and make a difference in public safety.
Are implicit biases real? Could implicit sexism lurk in our psyches, creating dangerous situations for the population at large?
(Lack of) Mind Control
Two researchers of social psychology, Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington and Mahzarin Banaji of Yale University, pioneered the concept of implicit, or unconscious, social behavior. In a 1995 study published in the Psychological Review journal, they explained that past experiences influence our behavior in ways that we do not recognize.
Our attitudes and stereotypes often hover below our level of awareness, so that even those who openly oppose prejudice might bear internal prejudices. These implicit prejudices create unintended discrimination.
On the heels of this discovery, Greenwald, along with two other University of Washington researchers, Debbie McGhee and Jordan Schwartz, introduced the IAT: the implicit-association test. This measure determines the strength of a person’s automatic associations between concepts and attributes. For example, it measures how quickly testers associate the term “Black” or the term “White” with the word “Pleasant.” On the basis of the rate of response, the test determines whether on an implicit level, people carry prejudices. The IAT has been widely accepted by researchers as an accurate measure of implicit prejudice.
In 2010, two researchers at Rutgers University, Laurie A. Rudman and Stephen E. Kilianski, studied attitudes toward female authority figures. They used the IAT to study implicit attitudes, and a separate questionnaire to measure explicit, or conscious, attitudes. Sixty nine undergraduate students served as research subjects.
Surprisingly, the results of the study showed that both men and women were subject to implicit sexism. Both men and women displayed negative attitudes toward female authority figures, linking images of women in charge with negative adjectives such as bossy, bitter, annoying, cynical, gloomy, selfish and snobbish.
The test subjects did not display such negative attitudes toward male authority figures or to low-authority females. On the brighter side, women in the study were less likely than men to express explicit, or outright, attitudes of sexism against female authority figures.
The study’s authors suggested that many people carry an implicit belief that it is more natural for men to take control. People may dislike women in powerful roles because they reverse the expectation that men should maintain power and authority.
The Hurricane Hypothesis
Is the hurricane hypothesis ridiculous? According to numerous research studies, implicit sexism is real and pervasive. For example, researchers at Yale University published a 2012 study that is clearly titled, “Science Faculty’s Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students.”
They found that members of the science faculties of research-intensive universities would be less likely to hire a woman than a man for a position as a laboratory manager on the basis of gender alone.
The analyses indicated that the scientists actually viewed females as less competent. In other studies, implicit gender bias was held responsible for women’s lower positions and lower salaries.
Implicit Bias Against Powerful Women is Real
Whether or not the hurricane study is found to be scientifically rigorous, its findings reveal a truth about our society: more often than not, women are not viewed as legitimate figures of power.