The double standard
Gender stereotypes can affect men, too, but often in a positive way. When women such as Susan Boyle display masculine traits, they tend to be judged negatively for it when men who display feminine traits are not. Indeed, in the experiments by Oh, Buck, and Todorov, when men displayed masculine traits, they were assumed to be more competent. It can even work to their advantage.
In the realm of snap judgments, one thing people quickly size up is attractiveness, a quality that carries weight both socially and professionally. People expect someone who is attractive to do well not just on dates but in the workplace and life more generally. A host of studies and models of facial impressions, dating back decades, supports the idea that someone considered attractive is perceived to be more competent and to have a higher social status. And according to a study from Oh, Columbia’s Natalie Grant-Villegas, and Todorov, men with more feminine facial features are considered particularly attractive.
The study explored how facial femininity and masculinity correlated with perceived character traits. The researchers asked two sets of heterosexual women to rate a set of white male faces on six stereotypically masculine and feminine personality traits: warmth, nurturance, gentleness, dominance, confidence, and competitiveness. Overall, the women indicated that men with some feminine facial features, including large eyes and a softer jawline, were warmer, more nurturing, and gentler.
After rating faces on personality traits, both sets of women were asked to rate 75 male faces on attractiveness. The faces were manipulated to look more or less masculine. In both studies, straight women more often rated the more feminine faces as attractive.
The researchers are careful to point out that this isn’t universally true. Some straight women may prefer more masculine personalities and therefore be more attracted to masculine faces. Generally the straight women who participated in the study preferred the faces they deemed warmer, more nurturing, and gentler, but how attractive you find someone is highly personal. There’s also no rule of nature that says a man who looks masculine isn’t also gentle and nurturing. Such perceived character traits are steeped in gendered stereotypes.
That said, overall, stereotypes seem to help men either way. If they’re masculine, they’re considered competent. If they’re feminine, they’re attractive—likely loving, caring partners or good-looking people who will do well in life. Yet women are doubly hurt by snap judgments—too feminine to be taken seriously, until they’re judged to look so masculine they trigger the backlash effect.
Is there anything to do?
Knowing that we’re prone to often incorrect and biased impressions isn’t enough to keep them from happening. “It’s difficult to restrain from engaging in snap judgments,” Todorov says. “They are fairly automatic, but superficial.”
People can judge another person’s face after seeing it for only 100 milliseconds, he finds in a study run with Janine Willis, a Princeton student at the time and now a corporate counselor. That’s 0.1 seconds that our brains take to process a face and make a choice about whether that person is trustworthy, attractive, or dominant.
Willis and Todorov showed 117 undergraduates photos of faces for three different time periods: one-tenth of a second, half a second, and 1 second. In one experiment, participants were asked to rate the faces on trustworthiness, with each subsequent experiment testing a different characteristic: attractiveness, likability, competence, and aggressiveness.
The participants did not need the extra time: the judgments they made about each face were not significantly different when they were given longer. This suggests that our appearance-based judgments are immediate and difficult to change, the researchers conclude. “The best course of action is to have access to good quality information and make sure that this information dominates your decision,” Todorov says.
He gives the example of symphony orchestras. For decades, large symphony orchestras in the United States consisted almost entirely of white men, and their conductors largely controlled the hiring process. Recognizing the process needed to be fairer and more open, many of the biggest orchestras in the country adopted blind auditions in the 1970s and ’80s. From then on, a musician’s interview process included playing a piece for a group of judges behind a screen, so the judges did not know the performer’s gender or race. The new procedure worked well for women. In 2000, Harvard’s Claudia Goldin and Princeton’s Cecilia Rouse examined the impact of blind auditions, finding that a blind process increased the probability that a woman musician would advance to the next audition stage and had an even bigger impact on the likelihood that she would be hired.
Some argue that blind auditions haven’t gone far enough, but Todorov notes they have successfully countered faulty first impressions. “One of the implications of my research is that to overcome biases, you would need to avoid presenting any cues triggering the bias,” says Todorov. Cues can include even the click of high heels as the person wearing them walks across a stage.
The same idea can be applied to other situations, even start-up investing. If investors were to narrow the pool of ideas without first seeing the faces of the people at the helm, women could potentially get a greater share of venture capital.
Deutsch wrote in CBR about VC firms that are using artificial-intelligence engines to help them vet and guide investments. Connetic Ventures is one such firm, and using A.I., it produced a diverse portfolio, with just over a third of companies led by female CEOs. (Read “Women and minority investors are taking matters into their own hands.”) Seemingly objective criteria may not eliminate bias entirely, and A.I. can develop its own biases by finding variables that correlate to gender. But in this case, Todorov notes, automating the process would seem to have helped remove the influence of snap judgments. That allows investors to react to ideas, not facial features.