I’m a white male.
As the New York Times has reported and loads of scientific research has found, membership within that demographic means that I am constantly benefiting from a range of sexist, racist, and unconscious biases.
While we’d have a more just society if that weren’t true, a host of economic and psychological studies have found that white males are perceived as more likeable, hireable, and trustworthy than other groups.
Let’s get into the deeply uncomfortable research, because if we can become aware of these biases, we have a better shot at doing something about them.
In a blind test, professors with male names were rated higher than those with female names, regardless of their actual gender.
In a 2014 North Carolina State study, researchers split 43 students in an online course into four discussion groups.
A female instructor led two of the groups, and a male led the other two. The female instructor told one of her groups that she was a man, and the male instructor told one of his groups that he was a woman. Crucially, students couldn’t see or hear the instructors, so they couldn’t tell who was which sex.
At the end of the course, students were asked to rate their instructors on 12 traits, including fairness, enthusiasm, and promptness.
“We found that the instructor whom students thought was male received higher ratings on all 12 traits, regardless of whether the instructor was actually male or female,” lead author Lillian MacNell said in a release. “There was no difference between the ratings of the actual male and female instructors.”
Job candidates with “white sounding” names were rated higher than those with “black sounding” names.
In a 2003 paper, economists Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan replied to help-wanted ads in Chicago and Boston with fake résumés.
Some applicants used names like Emily and Greg, while others used names like Lakisha and Jamal.
“The results show significant discrimination against African-American names,” the authors wrote. “White names receive 50% more callbacks for interviews. We also find that race affects the benefits of a better résumé. For White names, a higher quality resume elicits 30% more callbacks, whereas for African Americans, it elicits a far smaller increase.”
Looking at an identical case study, people preferred the male name over the female.
In 2003, Frank Flynn taught a Harvard Business School case study on Silicon Valley entrepreneur Heidi Roizin to a class at Columbia. Her story is epic: After graduating from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in 1983, she founded an early Silicon Valley software company before becoming president of Software Publishers’ Association and later serving as Vice President of World Wide Developer Relations for Apple. Then she became a venture capitalist and Stanford lecturer.
But when those Columbia students read her story, only half of them knew her as Heidi Roizin. The other half read the same story with a changed name: Heidi became Howard.
The students reacted very differently to the same protagonist, depending on the perceived gender.
“Although [students] think [Heidi is] just as competent and effective as Howard, they don’t like her, they wouldn’t hire her, and they wouldn’t want to work with her,” Flynn later said. “As gender researchers would predict, this seems to be driven by how much they disliked Heidi’s aggressive personality. The more assertive they thought Heidi was, the more harshly they judged her (but the same was not true for those who rated Howard).”
White people were more likely to get a free bus ride than black people.
In a recent Australian study, researchers asked 29 confederates of a range of genders and ethnicities to board buses, attempt to pay for the ride with a fare card that was out of money, and then ask for a ride to a station over a mile away when it didn’t go through.
In a Times op-ed, Yale law professor Ian Ayres said that the study “uncovered substantial, statistically significant race discrimination.”
Bus drivers were twice as willing to let white testers ride free as black testers (72% versus 36% of the time). Bus drivers showed some relative favoritism toward testers who shared their own race, but even black drivers still favoured white testers over black testers (allowing free rides 83% versus 68% of the time).
That’s the nature of white male privilege: Even if they and the people they interact with aren’t aware of it, they’re constantly getting the benefit of the doubt.
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