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Research, Sex and gender

People are more sceptical of sex difference research when findings favour men

Work which favours men is seen as lower quality, less convincing, and more harmful, compared to that favouring women.

28 September 2022

By Emily Reynolds

Research into sex differences gets a lot of publicity – and can be very controversial. On one hand, science has historically cast women in a negative light, with poorly-evidenced claims about apparent differences between men and women; research debunking these claims is therefore noteworthy. On the other, some work has drawn out differences that, previously ignored, have harmed women: for example, medical research has often seen male patients as the default “subject” to be tested, which has led to adverse reactions to medication in women.

So while many people (very reasonably) are suspicious of research on sex differences, some of it provides useful information. It’s therefore important to know how people engage with and respond to this kind of work. Now a new study has found that people have a consistent aversion to research favouring men, especially when that research is authored by men.

First, participants were shown a (fake) article reporting a sex difference – that either men were better or drawing, or that women were. In each condition, half of the participants saw articles containing a name and picture of a male lead researcher, and the other half a female one.

After reading the article, participants were asked a number of questions, including how convincing the study was, to what extent it provided good evidence, how trustworthy the researchers were, and whether similar studies should be funded. They then answered the questions again, but responding in the way they thought both the average man and average woman would. Finally, participants indicated to what extent they believed men or women were more privileged in society.

Overall, participants reacted less positively to papers that found men were better at drawing than women than those that found the reverse. Participants found the male-favouring study less convincing, for instance, and felt the researchers were less trustworthy. This effect was stronger for female participants, but male participants showed it too; despite this, participants assumed that the average man and woman would respond more positively to findings that favoured their own gender over the other.

In addition, the more participants felt that men were privileged over women, the more negatively they responded to the study that favoured men. But, contrary to the team’s predictions, the gender of the lead researcher had no impact on how participants felt.

The second study replicated the first, but looked at a more significant and consequential trait than drawing: intelligence. Again, participants had a much less positive response to articles favouring men over women than those that favoured women over men – and, again, this effect was stronger in women, as well as in left-leaning participants. They again believed that men-favouring research was less plausible and convincing, for instance. They also believed that the research favouring males would undermine women’s confidence and impact their results on intelligence tests more than female-favouring research would undermine men’s confidence. They also felt more strongly that male-favouring findings should be kept away from girls and not mentioned by teachers and the media.

People also saw the male-favouring research as more harmful – and the more harmful they felt it was, the lower quality they felt it was too, and the more inclined they were to protect women from the results. Unlike the first study, the gender of the lead researcher also made a difference: participants responded more negatively to research favouring men when the lead researcher was male rather than female. However, the gender of the lead author on research favouring women didn’t make a difference to participants’ judgements.

So, overall, participants expressed a consistent aversion to research that favoured men, especially when authored by men themselves. This could be because people believe that the world is easier for men, meaning that they resist information that seems to favour men; similarly, the history of research favouring men could have given rise to suspicion. The findings also suggest that people are keen to protect women from research that favours men because they see it as harmful and contributing to gender stereotypes; they may also, as above, be using their knowledge of the history of badly done and sexist research to make a guess about the quality of the work.

The research has significant implications. If our views on research into sex differences shift based on our preconceptions about what is and isn’t acceptable, then even trustworthy findings may be discounted. Yet a level of scepticism is probably healthy due to the history of harmful research in this area. Researchers should look to explore the impact of their findings, avoiding stereotypes and harm by communicating vital research in clear, non-discriminatory ways.