Try keeping your gender bias in check when Shopping online

Everyone on the Web — newbie start-up, Amazonian conglomerate, Nobel Laureate or troll — is equal. Your review, rant or business plan is only as good as the retweets, upvotes and likes it elicits from the three-billion-strong global disinterested netizenry. Rich, poor, man, woman or queer shouldn’t matter behind the walls of IP addresses.

Not so, report economists Tamar Kricheli-Katz of Tel Aviv University and Tali Regev of Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, in this week’s issue of Science Advances.

While a wealth of studies has over the decades found that gender bias is rife in the offline world — representation in parliaments, the boards of companies and grant approvals in research projects — the duo decided to check online. After all, what could be more removed from the subjectivity of status and gender than online shopping?

An unequal marketplace

Buying and selling goods in the real world may depend on the negotiating skills of buyer and sellers and their past business reputations. To weed all that out, the researchers chose online auctions where — at least in theory — buyers and sellers care for nothing but the best combination of price and product quality.

The economists analysed a million transactions, between 2009 and 2012, on eBay, and found that women sellers generally received about 80 cents for every dollar a man received when selling the identical new product and 97 cents when selling the same used product.

While it might appear that those transacting online — via their usernames — rarely divulge a lot of personal information, the researchers conducted a separate experiment and found that people were accurately able to tell apart men from women even with the minimal information provided online, in more than half the cases surveyed. They were wrong in only about a tenth of the cases and undecided in the rest. Also buyers report a lower willingness to pay for a specific product (a gift card) when sold by a woman compared to a man. So much for online egalitarianism.

What’s behind the bias

Is this bias conscious? The authors don’t get into that except for noting that their future investigations are on finding whether the kind of products women sell has a bearing on the price they get. That might again exhume a new layer of biases of whether people (men and women included) implicitly parse handbags as ‘feminine’ and laptops ‘masculine’. But previous studies of biases have found that they are buried so deep that most people are frequently repelled when shown to be in possession of them. The Implicit Association Test is an exhaustive questionnaire available for free on Harvard University’s website.

Ever since it was developed by Anthony Greenwald in 1994 it has, with disconcerting precision, found that three out of every four test-takers, including many African Americans, implicitly prefer white persons over black.

Harvard psychology professor Mahzarin Banaji and Dr. Greenwald discuss several such results in their 2013 book, Blind Spot: Hidden Biases Of Good People. Their short answer is that all of us are afflicted with so called ‘mindbugs’ or patterns of misconceptions. We humans cannot get by without sorting and categorising and most of the time we are doing this on the fly. Blonde and bilious — an upset leopard? Oh wait, that’s just Donald Trump. How we choose to act based on limited information defines our success in the jungle of civilisation but we pay a price with the baggage of misreadings. The many judgments we make aren’t always immediately corrected and that’s how our prejudice inveigles within us.

Whatever Dr. Kritcheli-Katz and Dr. Regev may, going ahead, discover about the depth of biases that dictate our online shopping, it’s unlikely they will conclude any differently from Dr. Greenwald and Dr. Banaji: that the best we can probably do about our ‘mindbugs’ is only to be aware of them.