Sex Bias at Work: The Effects of Attentional and Memory Demands on Performance Ratings of Men and Women1


  • 1

    This article is based in part on a dissertation submitted to New York University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Ph.D. and was presented at the 1990 meeting of the Academy of Management, San Francisco, California. The excellent advice of Madeline Heilman is gratefully acknowledged, as is the help of the other committee members, Art Brief, Janet Dukerich, Loriann Roberson, and Joan Gay Snodgrass. Shelly Chaiken, David Schneider, and two anonymous reviewers also provided helpful comments on an earlier version of this article. Finally, the assistance of Peter Mermin, William Powers, and Salvatore Salorenzo of Suffolk County Community College, Selden, New York, in conducting this research is greatly appreciated.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Richard F. Martell, Department of Psychology, Rice University, PO Box 1892, Houston, TX 77251.


The present study examined the impact of attentional and memory demands on work performance ratings accorded men and women in traditionally male jobs. Of interest was whether sex discrimination would abate in the face of individuating and job-relevant work behavior even when the demands likely to be faced in actual work settings were taken into account. Two hundred and two subjects read a vignette depicting the work behavior of a male or female police officer and then rated the individual's work performance. The attentional demands imposed on subjects while reading the vignette and the amount of time elapsed prior to issuing the performance ratings were systematically varied. As predicted, men were evaluated more favorably than women when raters were faced with an additional task requiring attention and time pressures were made salient. Only when subjects were able to carefully allocate all of their attentional resources did sex bias in work performance ratings abate. Memory demands had no effects on work performance ratings. Gender-related work characterizations paralleled the performance ratings, providing support for the idea that sex stereotypes mediate discrimination in performance appraisal judgments. The theoretical and practical implications of these findings, as well as suggestions for future research, are discussed.