Male magicians are judged to be more impressive than female


Male magicians are judged to be more impressive than female magicians, even when the tricks being performed are identical, new research into gender bias suggests.

Yet this bias disappears once an audience is asked to think more critically about the tricks themselves by trying to figure out their own solutions.

Psychologists conclude that it is more difficult to evaluate a trick negatively, whoever it is performed by, if you struggle to explain it yourself.

The study was led by Pascal Gygax from the University of Fribourg, with co-authors including Dr Gustav Kuhn at Goldsmiths, University of London. A report of the research has been published in the open access journal Social Psychology Bulletin.

Study participants were shown close-up videos of 14 magic tricks. Only the hands and arms of the magician presenting the tricks were visible. The figure wore white gloves and long sleeves which prevented participants identifying cues about whether they were male or female.

The performer was introduced to half the participants as ‘Nathalie’ and to half the participants as a ‘Nicolas’. Those who believed they were seeing tricks performed by ‘Nathalie’ rated them more negatively, and less impressive, than those who believed they were watching tricks performed by ‘Nicolas’.

When a second set of participants were shown the same tricks on video they were also asked if they could try and explain how the trick was done. During this experiment, the gender difference in ‘Nicolas’ and ‘Nathalie’s’ evaluations disappeared.

These results suggest that once you ask people to think more analytically about a person’s skills, prejudice is reduced or even eliminated.

The study argues that entrenched biases in wider society, such as stereotypes about women being weak or less in-control, could partly explain why people appear to prefer magic when they believe it is being performed by a man.

These findings align with similar research in the fields of mathematics, and computer skills, for example. Research in recent decades has also found that people are more critical when evaluating academic writing by women than by men, and the effect is bigger when the articles are written in male-dominated fields such as law, or city planning.

When a second set of participants were shown the same tricks on video they were also asked if they could try and explain how the trick was done. During this experiment, the gender difference in ‘Nicolas’ and ‘Nathalie’s’ evaluations disappeared.

Magician and Reader in Psychology at Goldsmiths, Dr Gustav Kuhn, said:

“The predominance of men in magic has a long history. Women who performed magic were associated with witchcraft and punished for centuries, and later women are relegated to the role of ‘glamorous assistant’ to a male magician, with female magicians also denied entry to the industry’s secretive organisations.

“Some people have internalised the idea that there are more male magicians because they’re better or more competent than female ones. This shows how the pernicious effects of stereotypes lead to prejudiced evaluations in all walks of life.

“But as our study concludes, it is possible to alleviate that gender bias in magic: through trying to figure out a solution, people become accountable for their evaluations and are less likely to think negatively of a performer.”

“Women hold up more than half the sky and represent much of the world’s unrealized potential.” Ki Moon (2011)

The unbalanced representation of women in leadership is a significant social, cultural, and organizational issue. Given that women now represent 40% of the global working population (The World Bank, 2017), it would be reasonable to expect a comparable gender ratio in leadership roles.

However, women only represent 34% of managerial positions around the world (World Economic Forum [WEF], 2018), and even less in the top roles. For example, in the United States less than 5% Fortune 500 CEOs are women (Zarya, 2018).

Thus, the persistent underrepresentation of female CEOs across different countries suggests that women face significant gender bias in the processes involved in the hiring and promotion of leaders.

It may be that women’s different career trajectories render them less likely to occupy management positions than men (e.g., Eagly and Karau, 19912002Ryan and Branscombe, 2012Hoobler et al., 2014).

Moreover, some research indicates that there are exceptions to the preferential selection of male leaders, with women more likely to be appointed to risky or precarious positions for example (glass cliff, see Ryan and Haslam, 2005). Nonetheless, the evidence overall indicates that women are less likely than men to be appointed to top leadership roles (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012Chartered Management Institute [CMI], 2016Glass and Cook, 2016).

Leadership Potential

Identifying talent for the future is key for organizations, and confers a competitive advantage (Silzer and Dowell, 2010). Talent management systems and leadership potential programs are designed to identify those individuals who will be leaders in the future and occupy senior positions (Church et al., 2015). 

Leadership potential specifically refers to exhibiting the qualities that signal future leadership effectiveness (e.g., Silzer and Borman, 2017). There are several frameworks that identify key characteristics of leadership potential, one of the most prominent being analytical capability (e.g., strategic insight, Dries and Pepermans, 2012).

However, most research on leadership potential has confounded it with current and past performance rather than on distinct indicators of leadership potential (Silzer and Church, 2009).

Specifically, leadership potential and leadership performance are highly conflated in practice, because indicators of high performance often provide the only source of information about potential.

The use of high-performance indicators to measure potential has been criticized because performance is limited to the requirements of an individual’s current role, and may not extend to success at the next level (Robinson et al., 2009).

Indeed, performance indicators can create a “halo effect” that may overinflate perceptions of leadership potential (Balzer and Sulsky, 1992Konczak and Foster, 2009).

An operational distinction between potential and performance was provided by Tormala et al. (2012). Participants were presented with competing candidates who were either higher in potential or higher in performance.

Future potential overshadowed previous performance with respect to participants’ evaluations of impressiveness and endorsement across a range of domains (e.g., art, sport, graduate school entry, and job recruitment).

For example, participants judged two candidates with equivalent educational and professional backgrounds for a managerial position at a large company (Tormala et al., 2012, Experiment 2).

One of the candidates had purportedly scored higher on a leadership achievement inventory, whereas the other scored higher on an assessment of leadership potential. Participants recognized that the candidate with higher leadership achievement had a more impressive résumé, but they expected the candidate with higher leadership potential to perform better in the future. Therefore, in this research we operationalize leadership potential and leadership performance as distinct leadership characteristics.

Assessments of leadership performance involve judgments of a number of different leadership traits or characteristics (e.g., vision, interpersonal, task-orientated).

Previous research has found that assessments of women were higher than those of men on leadership performance but lower than those of men on vision and strategy (e.g., Ibarra and Obodaru, 2009Roth et al., 2012).

Differential ratings on vision and strategy might have consequences for leadership selection given that strategic insight, and analytical skills in general, are acknowledged as key indicators of leadership potential (e.g., Marshall-Mies et al., 2000Silzer and Church, 2009Dries and Pepermans, 2012).

For example, Ibarra and Obodaru (2009) studied 2,816 female and male executives across 149 countries, analyzing 22,244 evaluations, and found that women were rated better than or equal to men across a range of measures but that men were rated significantly higher than women on “visioning” – the ability to be able to put forward a compelling vision and strategy.

Moreover, a meta-analysis of field studies (N = 45,733) revealed that women were evaluated more favorably than men on overall job performance ratings. Yet women were rated lower than men on the measure of future performance and promotability (Roth et al., 2012).

Such differences might arise partly because women are more likely to take on tasks which require competence, but do not improve chances of promotion (e.g., committee service; Babcock et al., 2017). Nonetheless, research on the power of gender stereotypes and decisions about leadership is conclusive – all else being equal, women are judged more harshly than men (e.g., Rudman and Glick, 2001Lyness and Heilman, 2006Blau and DeVaro, 2007).

Gender Bias in Leadership Selection

Social roles include both descriptive beliefs that define what men and women are like, and also prescriptive norms that define how individuals should be and how they should not be (Eagly et al., 2000Eagly and Wood, 2012).

According to social role theory (Eagly and Wood, 19992012), typical gender roles (e.g., women overpopulating communally demanding roles and men overpopulating agentically demanding roles) are likely to persist because people consistently witness typically female and male behavior and conclude that these characteristics are representative of the sexes.

Indeed, because people are frequently exposed to typical sex-typed behavior, women are typically perceived as, and expected to be, communal (e.g., caring, sensitive), whereas men are expected to be agentic (e.g., determined, competitive; Eagly and Karau, 1991Eagly et al., 1995Heilman, 2001Eagly and Sczesny, 2009Rosette and Tost, 2010Koenig et al., 2011).

In those workplaces where agency instead of communality is expected, stereotypes produce distinctive penalties for women (Caleo and Heilman, 2013). In particular, meta-analysis shows that leadership roles are still typically viewed as being agentic (Koenig et al., 2011), and therefore men will be perceived as more capable leaders (Levinson and Young, 2010).

When women demonstrate success in leadership roles, they can be penalized because they violate gender-prescriptive norms (Heilman et al., 2004) or contextual expectations (e.g., Randsley de Moura et al., 2018).

Ultimately, when people interrupt gender stereotypes, they can suffer consequences that undermine and devalue their social and economic status (Rudman and Phelan, 2008). Women who put themselves forward for positions of leadership can therefore face backlashes that undermine their status (Rudman and Phelan, 2008).

In support of this idea, the devaluation of women leaders is more pronounced when they occupy male-dominated roles (Eagly et al., 1992). Meta-analysis has also highlighted that women who display explicitly dominant behaviors (e.g., direct demands) are perceived as less hirable – because they are rated lower in likeability rather than any reduction in perceived competence (Williams and Tiedens, 2016).

In this paper, we test the hypothesis that women’s leadership potential is more likely to be dismissed than men’s leadership potential. This is consistent with the “think manager-think male” phenomenon (e.g., Schein et al., 1996).

Substantial evidence suggests that the stereotype of a typical leader is highly congruent with masculine traits (Eagly and Karau, 2002Koenig et al., 2011). The incongruence between the stereotype of a typical leader and feminine traits may explain why women face more challenging thresholds for promotion.

For example, Lyness and Heilman (2006) found that women who occupied management positions that were typically characterized by organizational power and influence (i.e., gender role incongruous) also received lower performance ratings than their male counterparts. In summary, we expect an overlooked potential effect such that women’s but not men’s leadership potential is likely to be overlooked when people judge and select candidates for leadership.

Although research indicates that evaluations of leaders and promotion to leadership positions are likely to be biased in favor of men, a meta-analysis (Koch et al., 2015N = 22,348) revealed a bias for men in male-dominated roles (e.g., in a leader position).

However, that role congruity bias was attenuated when information clearly highlighted a candidate’s high competence. We hypothesized that a female candidate’s leadership potential may only be acknowledged if she is unambiguously a high performer (i.e., when her leadership achievements cannot be dismissed).

Goldsmiths University


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