Prototypes: The Gender and Racial Biases That Are Too Obvious To Notice

Prototypes. Article photo

In less than one second, we effortlessly and automatically categorize a person according to gender and race. It’s useful to group together things that share characteristics into categories. This allows us to talk about “birds” rather than just “robins and sparrows and those kinds of things”. But the problem is that we also have strong, deeply ingrained overgeneralizations about people and what it means to be a certain gender and race. These stereotyping tendencies can result in sexism and racism.

Sexism and racism are bad. Most people agree on this. So then why do we still see huge gender and racial disparities in positions of power? Men make up more than 93% of world leaders, 95% of the highest earning CEOs, and 93% of directors of top grossing films. And the vast majority of these men are White men.

Why is that?

Are some groups of people, like women and people of colour, just inherently less interested in or less talented in politics, business, and the arts? Or, maybe a more realistic explanation is that as a society, we’re still more biased than we realize. So what are the underlying psychological factors that perpetuate subtle biases and result in systemic discrimination? One factor at play is prototypical representations.

“Prototypes” are who people think is the best or most typical example of a category.

When thinking about “birds”, people tend to think about robins before penguins – even though both are indisputably birds. In the same way, when thinking about “women”, people tend to think about White women before Black women. When thinking about “Black people”, people tend to think about Black men before Black women. 

There’s a hidden hierarchy in our default mental representations of people. And this has serious social consequences.

Causes and consequences of prototypes

People are less likely to remember what a non-prototypical woman said and are less likely to label an incident sexual harassment if the woman is non-prototypical. And because White men are prototypical of both their gender and race categories, it seems more natural that they represent people in general as world leaders, CEOs, and directors. 

To address this problem, we need to understand why some people are considered better prototypes than others. One possible reason is that some groups outnumber others, such as White people compared to people of colour, in most European countries. However, this explanation is not sufficient as it doesn’t explain why men are considered more prototypical than women.

Current social cognition research (like my own) looks for the causes of prototypicality in factors like perceived social power. Because the vast majority of the highest earning and most powerful people in the world are White men, this may make it easier to think of White men as the best prototypes of various social groups. And because the prototypes we have of various social groups is White men, it makes it seem more natural that White men continue to occupy the highest earning and most powerful positions in society. We may have become stuck in a feedback loop of prototypes mimicking life, and life mimicking prototypes.

We don’t normally challenge our familiar, default ways of thinking. But by becoming aware of these hidden psychological processes and their causes, we can confront them directly, design more effective policies for gender and racial equality, and learn to see ourselves and other people a bit more clearly.

Further Reading:

Federica Case: Social Psychology Glossary (2): Stereotype

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