Feds Spend $125,000 Studying Sexist Adjectives

'Good' for a woman may mean something objectively less good than 'good' for a man

July 21, 2015

The federal government is spending $125,000 to study adjectives that could be perceived as sexist or racist.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) tasked the University of Kansas with conducting the study last year.

"The proposed research predicts that stereotypes activate different standards of judgments for members of different groups; therefore, evaluations (adjectives) mean different things depending on the person described," according to the grant for the study.

"For example, in a masculine work domain where women are stereotyped as less competent, ‘good’ for a woman may mean something objectively less good than ‘good’ for a man," it said.

The project will examine letters of recommendation to see whether letters for women and minorities are "influenced by gender and racial stereotypes" that affect chances of admission into graduate school.

"In everyday life, we often are asked to provide assessments or evaluations of others' abilities," the grant said. "Stereotypes can subtly shape these evaluations and judgments, even among those who view themselves as non-prejudiced."

"This can be very consequential in certain contexts; for example, hiring and admissions decisions can be based in part on the evaluative language used in letters of recommendation, and the language used may be influenced by gender and racial stereotypes," the grant continued. "Further, audiences may also interpret this language with reference to those negative stereotypes about women and ethnic minorities."

The NSF project said it has major implications for "understanding bias in real world, evaluative settings."

"Understanding how and when stereotyping can occur in evaluative contexts is a critical step towards reducing bias, prejudice, and discrimination," the grant said.

Dr. Monica Biernat, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas, is leading the study. Biernat previously received $505,001 from the NSF, as well as $7,029 from the agency for a trip to Warsaw in 2006 for the "European Social Cognition Network."

The prior NSF projects included "a meta-analysis" of stereotyping and judgments and the hypothesis that stereotypes "exert a wide-ranging influence on social life in that they pervade our language, our interpretations of what others say and do, our decisions about others, and our thoughts about ourselves."

The latest project on stereotypes has cost $125,000. Biernat told the Washington Free Beacon that she would likely apply for additional funding in 2016, though "that by no means guarantees I'll get it," she said.

Aside from the adjective "good," Biernat provided other examples from her research of the effects of stereotypes.

"Because of shifting standards, a female chief of staff may be described as highly competent, a hit from a female softball player may generate more enthusiasm than the same hit from a male, and a Black student may receive more praise than a White student for an identical transcript," she wrote in Volume 45 of Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. "In each case, the target is being judged relative to lower expectations or standards for their group."

Biernat also suggested that men should think about using words such as "aggressive" when describing a woman.

"This practice may be less practical in the kinds of social judgments we render as part of everyday social discourse—judging a female driver as ‘aggressive,’ a mediocre Black student as ‘really smart,’ or a father who walks his kids to school as a ‘great’ parent," she wrote.

"But in these cases, awareness, education, and conscious self-correction may be important tools (‘I called her aggressive; would I have used the same label for a man?’)," Biernat continued. "This would of course require ability and motivation to correct on the part of the evaluator."