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Are We Biased Against Women in Intellectual Contexts?

The question: "Are We Biased Against Women in Intellectual Contexts?"

Hint: Yes.

But before we get into the nature of that bias, let’s firmly establish one fact: Women are just as smart as men. Men are just as smart as women.[i]

These are the findings from decades of research into gender differences into general cognitive ability – men and women are just as smart as each other. Objective evaluation of cognitive ability consistently reveals this fact. 

So, if men and women are equally smart, we should be selecting them at equal rates, right? If we’re hiring for a job that needs super smart people, we should be recruiting and hiring men and women at equal rates, right? I mean, men and women are equally smart, so this should be a no-brainer (pun mostly intended). 

Bias against women in intellectual jobs and teams

Unfortunately, this is not what we are observing. In a controlled study, Bian, Leslie, and Cimpian (2018)[ii] found that women were selected at lower rates for job settings that emphasized intellectual ability vs. settings that emphasized motivation. This effect was observed in both male and female subjects and was replicated across diverse samples. Basically, they found robust evidence that, even though men and women are equally smart, we still pick women less often when we need smart people.

But it gets even worse. 

Bian et al. replicated that study again in a sample of children aged 5-7. The children were asked to pick teammates for a new game they were taught. In the experimental condition, the children were told they needed “really, really smart people”, and in the control condition they were not given those instructions. Even after controlling for tendencies to pick their own (i.e., boys tend to pick boys; girls tend to pick girls), there was still evidence of bias against girls in situations needing “really, really smart people.”

Who would have thought this bias could start at such a young age?!?

Stop biases at the source

Obviously, to eliminate this bias, we need to teach all children to treat and value everyone equally. But until the day we can achieve that goal, we have to deal with the biases wherever they arise, especially when hiring. Bian et al. said it best:

Even if the hiring decision itself is unbiased, if it is based on a pool of candidates in which women are present in fewer numbers than their accomplishments would warrant, a strong case can still be made for bias in the hiring process. (p. 1149-50, emphasis in original)

So, if you see more men than women being hired for your ‘intellectual’ jobs, or any other biases, it may be time to take a close look at the hiring process data so you can stop the bias at its source. 

There are many methods and approaches that can help. If the applicant pool itself lacks diversity, bias could lurk in the job description or requirements or how you are sourcing candidates. If your demographics get too one-sided when evaluating specific requirements, add assessments to objectively measure those requirements. And, of course, if bias is plaguing your process, consider switching to an anonymous applicant evaluation process.

This is what we do at By bringing anonymity, the gender of the candidate is never part of the consideration in choosing the best qualified candidate (and neither is their name, where they worked, their age, etc.). The above studies, if applied with the use of anonymity, would become extinct – as only the best person would be chosen for a job (or a game).


[i] Hyde, J. S. (2005). The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60, 581-592. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.6.581

[ii] Bian, L, Leslie, S-J., & Cimpian, A (2018). Evidence of bias against girls and women in contexts that emphasize

intellectual ability. American Psychologist, 73, 1139-1153. doi: 10.1037/amp0000427

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