Feminism and Biases in Research (sort of…)

When I’m surfing the net I quite often come across things that fill me with that special kind of rage, which I’m sure anyone who’s ever read the comments underneath a YouTube video will have felt too (http://xkcd.com/386/).  A prime example of the type of things that awake this rage is the following: http://borderhouseblog.com/?p=5811 (Organisers of a launch party for the PS3 game ‘Battlefield 3’ decided that the best way to prevent women from being offended by misogynist language often used by male gamers, was to ban women from attending the event at all. What an inspired solution! *headdesk*). Misogynist or sexist behaviour is one of my biggest pet-hates; even when it’s inadvertent, or just down to ignorance.   In fact, in some ways, inadvertent sexism is worse than deliberate sexism as it represents the persistence of acceptable misogynistic norms in our society and will undoubtedly lead to biases.

These days of course there doesn’t seem all that much for feminists to get angry about (apart from slightly moronic jokes about telling women to “get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich”) however, there are still many inequalities and biases against women in the world today and it is important that we recognise them and try to change things; particularly within the domain of science. There is a huge feminist movement within the social sciences to do with conducting “feminist science” and preventing biases against women in scientific research. It is my opinion that this is a hugely important endeavour; and I say this not just from a feminist perspective but also from the perspective of someone who aspires to be (hopefully) a scientist one day. Biases in society; be they sexism, racism, homophobia, or any other; will lead to biases in research, which can only impede the progress of science.

Currently there is almost no psychological research in the areas of gay attraction, relationships or civil partnerships; most research into the concepts of love and attraction has been conducted with monogamous heterosexual couples in mind because, until very recently, being gay was simply not socially acceptable. This means that a huge aspect of human relationships has barely been studied at all. Another bias in established psychological research is that, from the time psychology began to be investigated until about the 1970s or 80s, the prototypical research participant was the typical student at the time: white, male, well-educated and either upper- or middle-class. The same goes for the majority of researchers. The data gathered from these participants was considered the norm and became the standard against which all other groups and populations were judged. Also the methods of testing these participants also became the standard way of testing that phenomenon in all groups. Obviously these kinds of research biases led to erroneous conclusions. In 1976 Kohlberg claimed that: compared to men, women tended to be less morally developed. Gilligan argued against this in 1982 by pointing out that the moral dilemmas on Kohlberg’s rating scale focused almost exclusively on a ‘justice orientation’, which because males and females are socialised in different ways was more likely to favour the males. When females were tested on moral dilemmas with a ‘care orientation’, they scored just as highly for moral development as the males, just in a different way.

I won’t say that my Battlefield 3 example means that society is in some kind of misogynistic downwards spiral, but, since it is clear that norms and biases in society can not only affect us personally but also in the scientific domain, perhaps we as potential researchers should think more carefully about such instances as they may indicate a growing social bias that may one day affect our own research.

(It does interest me that whenever I go on the SONA website and someone is doing a videogame study, they only want male participants. How come the girls can’t get course credit for gaming?)


Sources and Things of Possible Interest:










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  1. I also find androcentrism an interesting topic within research, and generally in life. Obviously it stems back to the beginning of the human races’ existence. Men have always been seen as the more “dominant” sex, and seen as the more important out of the two (which to me screams stupid when us women are the ones who produce them, and only we can produce them). It can also be seen in the very early stages of research when Freud discussed the theory of Penis Envy (http://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=ec8w6ZiwQD8C&oi=fnd&pg=PA14&dq=Freud+penis+envy&ots=hFOwUjgoqV&sig=6Bs5F9-BWpK5aKgSs51miP18QKI#v=onepage&q=Freud%20penis%20envy&f=false). This is a prime example of androcentrism. Because women don’t behave the same way as men do, our behaviour is inferior to theirs, and thus labelled with a theory.

  2. sexism in research is awfully discriminatory, but i believe in some cases it’s also necessary! just like the usage of fMRI studies and the right-handed preferences in participants http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hbm.20224/full sometimes i think male brains are just needed to be set for male studies, as do the minds of us lovely ladies for more female studies! (afterall, things like the effects of pregnancy and PMS cant really be studied on blokes!) the thing about battlefield 3 though is awfully derogatory though :/ but i think thats more a society thing than a psychology thing (it really does frustrate me though!)

  3. Firstly i would like to agree with you, that discrimination because of gender is a horrible thing, and that even if marketing is only directed at one gender, like the battlefield 3 game, completely banned the other gender should not be allowed, any form of discrimination in our society is wrong whether it is skin colour or gender. That being said, we are all different, both on an individual and cultural level, and because of this i think that in science it is not about discrimination, as for example men and women simply just are biologically different, for example does us men have more testosteron, which will make it react differently in some situations that girls would, and this might explain why girls are not allowed to participate in the video game SONA study. However of course there exists difference, such as tomboys, who have a higher testoteron level than the average girl, and interesting article about that can be read here: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2002/11/021112075626.htm.
    However i do agree that it is annoying when you see a study you want to participate in but cannot, i have countless times conplained to my friends for example about bilingual studies only being English-Welsh or French-English. But still, the researchers are looking at a specific population, so i do not consider it descrimination in research. And for research into the LGBT societies, i think an old saying would apply the best: it takes one to know one. What i mean is, for many people the idea of wanting someone from their own sex is seen as inappropriate, be it religious or personal convictions, and i personally think that for the research in this area to bloom up, it would need people from inside the environment, who are not prejudices at all towards it, as there would be less pre-bias, but also because i imagine it would make the LGBT more cooperational 🙂

  4. Biases crop up so often, research can hardly be objective if it is so easily skewed by its own researchers subjectivity. Male dominated historical works are still used today, especially in social psychology where subjectivity is a much bigger issue than something that tests reaction times. Other than the -ists and -isms and -phobias of the world that purposely and accidentally create biased methods, results and discussions culture is another bias. http://www.rmjs.co.uk/bham/11ps01.pdf This paper highlights, sexuality and gender as factor but under a higher order of culture, which defines how we see different groups in the first place. It argues research is Eurocentric and westernised. It doesn’t really surprise me that this is the case, as there is a larger current and historical base for research and so we are more likely to, unfortunately look over others. The article highlights the words of Howitt and Owusu-Bempah (1994) who says researchers who fail to address cultural bias are complicit with promoting it. Ensuring objective research would eliminate this, or if its difficult, to ensure research is done into unfamiliar cultures or to include in the discussion that generalisability may fall only within the culture of the experimenter

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