Study Suggests Sexual Bias in Certain Aptitude Tests

Good ol’ standardized testing. Why would anybody want to admit someone into college or hire someone based on actual work, like reading application letters or conducting interviews? Why should an entire career in school or the work force matter when you can just reduce it all down to a single number?

No, I’m not bitter. I was an excellent test taker growing up and reaped the rewards. But I’m not so naïve to think that the tests work equally well for everyone. As Shaq said in Blue Chips, “This class is racially biased.” It’s pretty much impossible to create a test that challenges all types of people in equal ways and at equal lengths.

Proof in point, a recent study conducted by Frank Schmidt of the University of Iowa lays proof to a claim of a particular theory that postulates a specific type of standardized test is not a good measure of women. The reason?

Lack of interest.

Previous research has shown that a person’s ability to pick up the skills required to perform a job is highly dependent on their general mental ability. What it isn’t so much related to, however, is their aptitude for specific technical skills. For example, you might think that a job applicant who scores higher in a verbal aptitude test would make a better clerical assistant, since they’d be working with mostly written material. And you might be right. But only insofar as that persons general mental ability is higher.

In short, a smart person will do a good job. And if there are two equally smart people, one’s performance on a test in a moderately-related field won’t make a difference.

Schmidt is a proponent of the theory that a person’s previous experience is what drives them to perform better on specific aptitude tests. For example, a man might score higher on a mechanical aptitude test because he’s used his hands to work on cars and build tree houses. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean he can learn to weld or fly a plane any better or quicker than a really smart guy who likes to cook and write novels.

At least, that’s the theory.

And the rest of the theory is that, based on our culture, men have a higher interest and thus more experience in mechanical systems, electrical systems and other “boy” activities. Of course, there are plenty of women who enjoy similar activities, but on the whole it’s a lot more common for men. Thus, men score higher on technical aptitude tests related to these activities because they have more experience in them. This causes women to be overlooked in jobs that rate applicants based on these kinds of tests, seeing as how – in theory – an equally smart woman would still do just as well as a man in a related job.

To see if it had merit, Schmidt looked for four trends in a massive data set of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), a 10-subtest instrument used by all branches of the U.S. military in the selection of recruits. The first is that there should be a stronger correlation between technical aptitude and general mental ability in women, because there are some dumb ass jocks out there who know their way around a car, thus skewing the correlation in men. The second is that there should be a greater range of scores throughout the spectrum in technical aptitude for men, because a decent percentage will have experience, while a lower percentage of women would. The third is that, on average, women will have a lower technical aptitude score throughout their range of general mental ability. And lastly, that technical aptitude scores will underestimate the general mental ability for women.

It’s this last one that causes a problem in finding the best employees for the work force, or armed forces, as the case may be.

Sure enough, after crunching the numbers from 216,000 men and 41,600 women, all four predictions proved to be true. What’s more, another result came out of the results that Schmidt did not anticipate. Namely, that the smarter a woman is, the more a technical aptitude test underestimates her intelligence. The reasoning is that the smarter a woman is, the more awesome she’d be at the test if she had prior experience in a related field.

In short, the entire study just goes to show how one of the most important tests used by private companies, public companies and the armed forces alike can be sexually biased.


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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