Many psychological factors contribute to the production and maintenance of gaps
and inequities along social dimensions (such as gender and racial/ethnic background).
These factors, which research in our lab seeks to uncover, fall in three general categories:
(1) constrained choices, (2) barriers to entry, and (3) difficulties thriving.

constrained choices

We study how beliefs about roles and beliefs about social groups create disparities in the pipeline that feeds various roles and occupations. These beliefs can shape individuals’ motivations, goals, and aspirations from a young age and may constrain their choices in a way that contributes to group disparities in the workforce.


A new line of research at SRBL examines how masculine workplace norms can disincentivize women’s participation and contribute to a lack of diversity in academic science and other professional contexts by encouraging women to self-select out of those domains. A series of recent studies by Vial, Muradoglu, Newman, and Cimpian (2021) demonstrates how an emphasis on a male-stereotypic trait (intellectual “brilliance”) leads individuals to perceive an environment characterized by a competitive struggle for intellectual dominance (a “masculinity contest culture”). 

Privileging stereotypically-masculine traits can generally favor the proliferation of male-typed behavior as a default. And, given that people tend to see brilliance as a fixed attribute (one that cannot be improved upon with effort or hard work), emphasizing brilliance may promote performance goals: a felt pressure to “show off” one’s superior intelligence. This pressure to show off may incite competition to attain “star status” and foster intellectually-oriented dominance behaviors such as harshly criticizing others, dismissing contrarian perspectives, and generally adopting a zero-sum mentality to work. These negative behaviors can be particularly discouraging to women, who are socialized to avoid being dominant.

Our studies show a strong link between the perception of an emphasis on brilliance and the perception of a masculinity contest culture. In one large survey with 1,347 academics from 30+ disciplines, we found a strong correlation between the two types of perceptions among both male and female respondents. We also found that perceiving a masculinity contest culture as a result of an emphasis on brilliance was connected with poor well-being for academics—stronger impostor feelings and a lower sense of belonging in their academic fields.

This research further demonstrates how the connection between an emphasis on brilliance (a male-stereotypic trait) and the perception of an environment of ruthless competition for intellectual dominance can explain the persistent underrepresentation of women in fields where success is believed to require brilliance, such as philosophy, economics, and mathematics. In one experiment, when a company emphasized brilliance, female (but not male) participants expected it to have a stronger masculinity contest culture. As a result of perceiving this kind of culture, all participants in the study anticipated stronger impostor feelings and a lower sense of belonging in the company, and were less interested in the possibility of joining it.

Another experiment demonstrated that when participants were led to believe that a brilliance-oriented company was not characterized by a masculinity contest culture, women were just as interested in this company as men were, and anticipated similar levels of belonging. Thus, this research suggests a potential means of addressing the persistent underrepresentation of women in domains where brilliance is valued: Organizations seeking to attract a diverse workforce in domains that prize brilliance might benefit from setting strong norms that foster free exchange and openness and discourage competition for intellectual dominance (e.g., vying for “star status”).

Current research at SRBL lead by Colleen Cowgill is extending this initial work on masculinity contest cultures in high-brilliance domains by investigating the role of diminished altruism and prosociality. We are interested in studying the effects of masculinity contest cultures on people’s motivations to help coworkers, and the potential downstream consequences for workers from non-traditional backgrounds (e.g., women in male-dominated contexts where brilliance is emphasized).

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barriers to entry

We study how beliefs about roles and beliefs about social groups create barriers to entry for individuals who aspire to roles and occupations that have not been historically occupied by their group. These beliefs can influence hiring decisions both directly and indirectly and may operate both independently and in combination to produce group disparities in the workforce.


One prominent line of research at SRBL that examines barriers to entry is focused on understanding Attitude Accommodation—a phenomenon in which an individual attends to and integrates the preferences of other people (e.g., their social prejudices) when making a specific decision. Humans are social creatures who constantly seek out others’ opinions. Even when we may not particularly care about other peoples’ views on a personal level, our lives are structured in a way that makes ignoring others’ preferences fairly difficult and often times disadvantageous. Indeed, we often accommodate or acquiesce to others’ unpalatable views because doing so allows us to fulfill a goal that is dear to us. One particularly negative outcome of going along with others’ preferences is that it may bias decision making processes toward unfair or even discriminatory choices that contribute to social inequality.


To illustrate this phenomenon, a series of experiments by Vial, Brescoll, and Dovidio (2019) demonstrates a “third-party prejudice effect” in which individuals in charge of hiring an executive for a technology company accommodated a CEO who was prejudiced against women by selecting a male over an otherwise identical female candidate to work at the company. This phenomenon was apparent in student samples in the laboratory and adult samples online, and it was later demonstrated in another experiment with human resources professionals with extensive training in staff hiring by Vial, Bosak, Flood, and Dovidio (2021).    


At SRBL, we have approached the phenomenon of attitude accommodation using a role-based framework, focusing on the specific role-relevant concerns and demands experienced by those in charge of making hiring decisions. For example, our research shows how a typical concern with hiring job candidates who will be a good fit with existing employees—and worries that a woman would not fit in well with folks who harbor gender prejudice—can explain the tendency to accommodate this prejudice. A set of experiments by Vial, Dovidio, and Brescoll (2019) demonstrates that assuaging these role-relevant concerns can reduce people’s tendency to accommodate gender prejudice when making hiring decisions.


Something particularly noteworthy about attitude accommodation is that people who do it often do not share the prejudicial views that they nevertheless end up passing along. Our work on this topic clearly demonstrates that individuals discount their own values and beliefs in order to accommodate others’ attitudes with the goal of meeting role-based demands. For example, Vial, Brescoll, and Dovidio (2019) and Vial, Dovidio, & Brescoll (2019) found that women were just as likely as men to accommodate a third-party’s prejudice against working women (even though, as ingroup members, women tend to harbor more positive views toward this group than men do). It also doesn’t seem to matter whether someone endorses or rejects sexist views (e.g., “modern sexism”, “benevolent” or “hostile” sexism); these personal views do not predict the tendency to accommodate (or reject) others’ gender-based prejudice. Vial, Brescoll, and Dovidio (2019) even found that those who accommodated prejudice felt guilty and remorseful about this decision—yet, unless rejecting prejudice is framed as compatible with contextual role demands, the evidence suggests that people tend to accommodate prejudice no matter how aversive they find the behavior.


As our research demonstrates, it is crucial to understand how attitude accommodation works because it can create barriers that block women’s entry into male-dominated work contexts. Whereas past research on gender discrimination has focused traditionally on understanding the direct influence of individuals’ gender bias, the research at SRBL indicates that gender bias can manifest indirectly and that relatively non-prejudiced individuals can nevertheless serve as vessels for the transmission of prejudicial views. A focus on this process of attitude accommodation shifts attention away from trying to influence people’s own attitudes (which has proven to be quite difficult) and instead it strongly suggests that efforts should be directed towards addressing the motivations at the root of people’s tendency to accommodate others’ prejudice.


Current research in our lab in collaboration with April Bailey and Jack Dovidio seeks to understand how people think about attitude accommodation. How do outside observers respond to those who engage in this behavior? Although research on the “third-party prejudice effect” suggests that people accommodate others’ prejudices not out of malice but due to external role-based demands, it is possible that observers might not recognize those external pressures, and instead would infer a sexist attitude in someone who accommodates third-party sexism. How people explain instances of bias—why and how they occurred—can influence how they seek to redress them; for example, whether they focus exclusively on reforming individual actors, or whether they shift their attention to the larger institutional practices that may promote biased behaviors. Our ongoing work aims to provide a deeper understanding of how people evaluate third-party prejudice accommodation and the kinds of attributions that they make for this behavior—a perspective that may differ substantially from the perspective of actors themselves.

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difficulties thriving

We study how beliefs about roles and beliefs about social groups create interpersonal resistance that makes it difficult for individuals in non-traditional fields to thrive in those domains. We are also interested in understanding the conditions in which people in non-traditional roles may thrive.


An ongoing goal at SRBL is to develop a nuanced understanding of the difficulties that women encounter when they occupy leadership roles, which have been historically occupied by men, and to identify the conditions in which female leaders may thrive. We approach the study of the difficulties faced by female leaders from the perspective of power legitimation processes (Vial, Napier, & Brescoll, 2016). Decades of research indicate that women tend to be seen as less legitimate leaders than similar men.

Given that people tend to cooperate more when they perceive authorities to be legitimate, a legitimacy lens suggests that subordinates might be less cooperative when the leader is a woman versus a man, and more likely to do the bare minimum. People also tend to see leaders with whom they share a social category group membership as more legitimate than leaders with whom they do not, which could explain why men usually show less support than women for female leaders.


For example, in an investigation by VialBrescoll, Napier, Dovidio, and Tyler (2018), we showed that male and female employees drawn randomly from a nationally representative panel of U.S. respondents behaved differently based on the gender of their supervisor. Among those who worked for female supervisors, male employees engaged in cooperative work behaviors less often than female employees. Men overall showed a strong bias against female supervisors, whereas in-group favoritism was weaker among women—this effect was replicated in an online experiment in which participants rated hypothetical supervisors who were identical except for their gender.


Ongoing research at SRBL seeks to expand current knowledge of the experience of female leaders by investigating leader role expectations and prescriptions as they relate to male and female stereotypes. Past work suggests that the difficulties that female leaders experience garnering support from others are due at least in part to a tendency to associate leadership roles with stereotypically-masculine attributes like high assertiveness and dominance (the “think manager, think male” phenomenon). For example, Vial and Napier (2018) showed that stereotypically feminine traits related to communality are viewed as “unnecessary frills,” and although they are appreciated as nice “add-ons” for leaders it is stereotypically masculine traits of agency that are valued as the defining qualities of the leader role.

However, there are many contexts in which people may expect that leaders would benefit from more stereotypically-feminine attributes (e.g., care-oriented domains and professions). In these contexts, people may be more likely to “think female” when they “think manager”. In one current project in our lab spearheaded by Colleen Cowgill, we examine descriptive stereotypes of leaders in different domains—beliefs about what leaders in those contexts are typically like—with the goal of identifying contexts that may be advantageous to female leaders.


In another current project in collaboration with Fabiola Dorn (University of Bristol), we examine leader role prescriptions—beliefs about what leaders should be like, ideally—and whether those prescriptions differ for male and female leaders. Past work in our lab has demonstrated how leader role prescriptions are generally male-typed. In our new work, we further examine whether this association between the traits of “ideal leaders” and the traits of men may be due to an androcentric tendency to assume that leaders are men. When asked to think about female leaders, specifically, do people also view “ideal female leaders” as primarily masculine? Or do they believe that female leaders should be more communal than male leaders? Are female leaders and male leaders actually prescribed different types of behaviors?


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