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July 29, 2015

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Bias against female leaders found as early as teen years

July 29, 2015
Courtesy of Harvard University
and World Science staff

Bi­as against fe­male lead­ers is common even am­ong teen­agers—and some of it comes from girls them­selves, as well as moth­ers, a study has found.

The find­ing of deeply en­trenched bi­as is sober­ing, “yet par­ents and teach­ers can do a great deal” to over­come their own and oth­ers’ bi­as, said Har­vard Un­ivers­ity’s Rich­ard Weiss­bourd, one of the re­search­ers.

“We all have a part to play in cre­at­ing a cul­ture in which girls can reach their full po­ten­tial,” said par­ent­ing ex­pert Mi­che­le Borba, co-author of a re­port on the find­ings with Weiss­bourd.

The re­port was re­leased July 28 from a Har­vard Grad­u­ate School of Educa­t­ion proj­ect called Mak­ing Car­ing Com­mon. It looks at con­scious and un­con­scious bi­ases, al­so called re­spec­tively “ex­plic­it” and “im­plic­it” bi­ases, among teen girls, teen boys, and par­ents. 

“Our study points to in­sid­i­ous bi­as against girls as lead­ers that comes from many sources,” said Weiss­bourd, a co-director of the proj­ect.

Mak­ing Car­ing Com­mon con­ducted the re­search dur­ing the 2014-15 school year, in­clud­ing a sur­vey of al­most 20,000 stu­dents from a di­verse range of 59 mid­dle and high schools, smaller fol­low-up sur­veys, and a se­ries of fo­cus groups. The full re­port is here.

Among the ex­pe­ri­ments in the stu­dy, stu­dents were sur­veyed as to wheth­er they wheth­er they wanted to give more pow­er to stu­dent coun­cils led by boys or girls in var­i­ous eth­nic or ra­cial cat­e­gories: white, black, and La­ti­no.

Coun­cils led by white girls drew the least sup­port, and coun­cils led by white boys drew the most, the study found.

Al­so, it found, white girls ap­pear to be bi­ased against oth­er white girls as lead­ers—they tended not to sup­port giv­ing pow­er to white girls. White girls pre­sented with white girl-led coun­cils ex­pressed low­er av­er­age sup­port for the coun­cil than white girls pre­sented with white boy-led coun­cils.

Some moth­ers al­so ap­pear to be bi­ased, the re­port went on: moth­ers’ av­er­age lev­el of sup­port for coun­cils led by boys was high­er than their av­er­age sup­port for coun­cils led by girls.

Fo­cus groups and in­ter­views sug­gested a va­ri­e­ty of rea­sons for the bi­ases, in­clud­ing girls proj­ecting neg­a­tive im­ages of them­selves on­to oth­er girls, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers.

Among oth­er sug­ges­tions, the re­search­ers ar­gue that aware­ness of bi­as mat­ter­s—past re­search in­di­cates that the aware­ness it­self re­duces bi­as.

The au­thors’ ad­vice to the pub­lic: check your own bi­ases. Par­ents’ and ed­u­ca­tors’ bi­ases pow­erfully in­flu­ence wheth­er chil­dren de­vel­op bi­ases. None of us are im­mune from bi­as, but we can work to spot and man­age our bi­ases and we can get feed­back from family and friends about our bi­ases that we may be un­aware of, the re­search­ers said.

Cul­ti­vate family prac­tices that pre­vent and re­duce bi­as, they added. Par­ents and oth­er adults can help pre­vent bi­ases from form­ing in chil­dren by de­vel­oping re­flexes and prac­tices in our­selves and our chil­dren that stem gen­der bi­ases. Par­ents can, for ex­am­ple, en­gage chil­dren in cre­at­ing a bias-free home, in­clud­ing seek­ing chil­dren’s in­put about family prac­tices that may be bi­ased.


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Bias against female leaders is found even among teenagers—and some of it comes from girls themselves, as well as mothers, a study has found. The finding of deeply entrenched bias is sobering, “yet parents and teachers can do a great deal” to overcome their own and others’ bias, said Harvard University’s Richard Weissbourd, one of the researchers. “We all have a part to play in creating a culture in which girls can reach their full potential,” said parenting expert Michele Borba, co-author of a report on the findings with Weissbourd. The report was released July 28 from a Harvard Graduate School of Education project called Making Caring Common. It assesses the conscious and unconscious biases, also called respectively “explicit” and “implicit” biases of teen girls, teen boys, and parents with regard to gender and leadership. “Our study points to insidious bias against girls as leaders that comes from many sources,” said Weissbourd, a co-director of the project. Making Caring Common conducted the research during the 2014-15 school year, including a survey of almost 20,000 students from a diverse range of 59 middle and high schools, smaller follow-up surveys, and a series of focus groups. More information about the research methodology can be found in the full report at http://www.makingcaringcommon.org. Among the experiments in the study, students were surveyed as to whether they whether they wanted to give more power to student councils led by boys or girls in various ethnic or racial categories: white, black, and Latino. Councils led by white girls drew the least support, and councils led by white boys drew the most, the study found. Also, it found, white girls appear to be biased against other white girls as leaders—they tended not to support giving power to white girls. White girls presented with white girl-led councils expressed lower average support for the council than white girls presented with white boy-led councils. Some mothers also appear to be biased, the report went on: mothers’ average level of support for councils led by boys was higher than their average support for councils led by girls. Focus groups and interviews suggested a variety of reasons for the biases, including girls projecting negative images of themselves onto other girls, according to the researchers. Among other suggestions, the researchers argue that awareness of bias matters—past research indicates that the awareness itself reduces bias. The authors’ advice to the public: check your own biases. Parents’ and educators’ biases powerfully influence whether children develop biases. None of us are immune from bias, but we can work to spot and manage our biases and we can get feedback from family and friends about our biases that we may be unaware of. Cultivate family practices that prevent and reduce bias, they added. Parents and other adults can help prevent biases from forming in children by developing reflexes and practices in ourselves and our children that stem gender biases. Parents can, for example, engage children in creating a home that is a bias-free zone, including seeking children’s input about family practices that may be biased.