I wasn’t really paying attention to the radio. I was busy cooking, but it sounded to me as if the question Clive Anderson asked the film-maker Andrea Calderwood on Saturday’s episode of Loose Ends amounted to ‘how come a nice woman like you is making films about the nasty episode that was the Biafran civil war?’. Of course he didn’t use those words but it certainly smacked of that. Her response amounted to ‘I‘ve been inappropriately called a wee lassie before‘ but she remained entirely civil. Too often women are asked questions no one would consider asking a man. Questions such as ‘how will you sort out child-minding?’ or ‘are you tough enough to work in the world of film, physics, engineering…..[insert noun of your choice here]?’. The interview with Calderwood, I fear, smacked of that sort of thing.
Was this unconscious bias? Stereotyping? Yes to both I fear. Unconscious bias is so ingrained and I’ve written about it many times before (e.g. here, here and here), but when the University of Sheffield’s Jenny Saul came to talk at Cambridge recently specifically about the subject she introduced me to a study I’d not come across previously which raised a new dimension. Possibly something simple that could be done easily during the interview process to even things out. Something involving biscuits, or possibly cake.
The study she referred to appeared in 2009 and is entitled ‘Stereotypes and prejudice in the blood: sucrose drinks reduce prejudice and stereotyping ‘. The authors from the Netherlands (Gailliot, Perucke, Plant and Baumeister) examined ‘ whether bolstering self-control by giving participants glucose would reduce stereotype use for an impression formation task‘. The control group were given a zero calorie drink, the ‘glucose condition’ group were given a drink containing about 140kcal 12 minutes before completion of the test to allow time for sugar metabolism. The test consisted of writing down what participants thought a day in the life of a homosexual man might be like. Separately they assessed the level of prejudice of participants using a specific but distinct questionnaire about attitudes towards homosexuality.
What were their conclusions?
Compared to the control group, the participants in the glucose condition used fewer stereotypes when writing an essay about a day in the life of a gay man. In addition, high-prejudice participants in the glucose condition used fewer derogatory statements in their essays than high-prejudice participants in the control condition.
In other words, even for those with quite strong prejudices, these negative thoughts could be ameliorated by a quick sugary drink. Of course, I am sure we all have noted our own grumpiness when our stomachs are rumbling. In this context, the Economist has reported this week a very different study, on marital relationships, headlined ‘Low glucose levels can lead spouses to lash out at one another’, where the severity of ‘torment’ a spouse was willing to subject their partner to was correlated with blood-sugar levels. However, the study on prejudice did not seem to be dealing with a situation where the participants were deliberately being kept hungry until given the glucose drink and I would not necessarily have expected grumpiness to extrapolate to expressions of actual prejudice.
Looking at subsequent citations to the Mailliot paper, they mainly seem to be dealing with aggression (more equivalent to the grumpiness) and how self-control is affected by low sugar levels, rather than prejudice per se. Thus it isn’t clear to me whether this study has broad applicability to different kinds of prejudice and stereotyping. It is interesting that no one seems to have picked up on it to extend the original framework of the study. Nevertheless, maybe it is something worth trying out before some important decision is to be made. I’m not sure I’d lay in the Lucozade/Gatorade to ply an interview panel or committee with, since they might well turn up their noses, but some chocolate biscuits wouldn’t be stretching the budget too far and if appropriately fancy-looking maybe they would tempt people sufficiently to get them to indulge. It’s an interesting idea that wouldn’t obviously do any harm.
The evidence keeps piling up as to how stereotyping can harm women’s job prospects. If they are expected to be less adventurous, assumed to be someone else’s lieutenant rather than the driving force or ‘not yet ready’ for the big move before they’ve even opened their mouth at interview, then let’s ply the panel with sugar and see if things improve. However if, as is too often likely to be the case, the bias is established as soon as the name on the CV is read, then this strategy won’t be adequate. Either way, a good dose of unconscious bias training to add to the spoonful of sugar seems desirable.