Schemas are implicit, often non-conscious, hypotheses that we use to interpret social events.1 They allow us to makes sense of a complex stimulus world by categorizing people, objects, and events. Schemas exist for men and women, different age groups, and different ethnic groups. For example, gender schemas assign different psychological traits to males and females.2 These include thinking of males as task-oriented, rational, capable leaders, and females as nurturing and emotionally expressive. These hypotheses often conflict with consciously held or “explicit” attitudes and are shared by both males and females. Similarly, race and ethnic stereotypes are shared by White people and People of Color. Once schemas are activated, they direct and skew our perceptions, even in the face of objective information that contradicts the schema.
Schemas for males are more likely to correspond to notions about professional success than schemas for females. Schemas affect perceptions of competence. For example, men are likely to be overvalued and women undervalued.
Schemas and related biases predict behavior in the real-world, including job applicant evaluations and hiring practices. This is particularly the case when evidence is ambiguous and open to interpretation. Schemas and associated stereotypes are held by those with the best of intentions and a commitment to equity. They are learned early in life and are often resistant to change, though research has demonstrated that they are malleable.
1 Fiske & Taylor, 1991.
2 Martin & Halverson, 1987.