Written by Catie Holshouser ’22
My last two blog posts focused on subtle and overt examples of gender bias. My first post explained how men and women introduced fellow speakers at a professional oncology conference. Men were more likely to informally address women, while women formally introduced speakers regardless of gender. My second post explained the types of gender biases that women experienced in surgical subspecialties. Examples of gender biases included witnessing a man being praised for group work that a woman was involved in or being encouraged to pursue a specific field of medicine to ensure ample time for family care. The two studies together showed different examples of biases that are representative of larger problems women face in academia and medicine.
In the current study, “Men, women…who cares? A population-based study on sex differences and gender roles in empathy and moral cognition” researchers performed two assessments to see whether or not there are sex differences in empathy. The study does not explicitly address gender biases, but the research itself is still relevant to the broader discussion of gender bias. The American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology defines empathy as “understanding a person from his or her frame of reference rather than one’s own, or vicariously experiencing that person’s feelings, perceptions, and thoughts.” Do gender differences in empathy affect one’s tendencies towards biases? The ability to express empathy may help men and women understand the biases each other experience and take the necessary steps to reduce them.
In Study 1, researchers used an empathy-for-pain task to assess if sex differences influence responses of empathy. Over 10,000 university students and professionals participated in a survey that evaluates different aspects of empathy. Participants watched 11 scenarios; each had an episode of either intentional harm, accidental harm, or neutrality, meaning both people interacted with no pain. Participants answered questions in a yes/no format or on a scale. Questions included: Was the action done on purpose? How sad do you feel for the victim? How upset do you feel for what happened in the situation? How bad was the agent’s intention? How much penalty does this action deserve?
Results showed that women were more accurate than men in determining whether an incident was intentional. Women also showed higher empathic concern and higher discomfort in cases of intentional harm as well as higher punishment ratings than men. However, the effect size, meaning the magnitude of the difference in responses, was extremely small. This means that in this study, there are very small sex differences in empathy. This is in contrast to results from self-report assessments designed to measure empathy. Researchers ultimately suggested that the assessment method is a determinant of sex differences in empathy.
In Study 2, a small cohort of participants from the first study participated in a self-report to see if results from Study 1 were replicated with a different assessment method. Participants took a 28-item self-report that measured different components of empathy, including personal distress, perspective taking, empathic concern, and fantasy. Results showed that women showed significantly higher overall scores than men. The findings from Study 2 show very clearly how assessment methods can affect results.
I was surprised to learn how the assessment method influenced sex differences in empathy. While stereotypical images of women as emotional and sensitive may influence society’s view of women as more empathic, greater empathy in women was not captured in the empathy-for-pain task like it was in self-reports. I never realized how such different approaches may show different results.
The ability to understand one’s experience “from his or her frame of reference rather than one’s own” is very relevant to gender bias. Being able to understand someone’s experiences from their own point of view has the potential to influence how we treat them in the future. Perhaps empathy affects how women and men address each other. For the women in the study from my second blog post, maybe more expressions of empathy by male colleagues would reduce gender biases that they experienced in surgery. Ultimately, building empathy and understanding the microaggressions that women experience may help people become aware of and reduce their own tendencies towards bias.
Baez, S., Flichtentrei, D., Prats, M., Mastandueno, R., García, A.M., Cetkovich, M., & Ibáñez, A. (2017). Men, women…who cares? A population-based study on sex differences and gender roles in empathy and moral cognition. PLoS ONE, 12(6), https://doi.orghttps://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0179336
American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology. https://dictionary.apa.org/empathy