Saturday, February 07, 2015

This week in calling out sexism: "Office Housework" and "Bossy or Brilliant?"

Two articles this week confirm what many of us have experienced about gendered attitudes.

In "Office Housework" at  the New York Times, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant support with good evidence something that we've seen before: women get to take notes, take on service tasks, and so on. If they don't do these things, they're not collegial; if they do them, they are relegated to lesser status:
When a woman declines to help a colleague, people like her less and her career suffers. But when a man says no, he faces no backlash. A man who doesn’t help is “busy”; a woman is “selfish.”
For staying late and helping, a man was rated 14 percent more favorably than a woman. When both declined, a woman was rated 12 percent lower than a man. Over and over, after giving identical help, a man was significantly more likely to be recommended for promotions, important projects, raises and bonuses. A woman had to help just to get the same rating as a man who didn’t help.
In "Is the Professor Bossy or Brilliant?" Claire Cain Miller reports the results of Benjamin Schmidt's study of terms used to describe male and female professors at
It suggests that people tend to think more highly of men than women in professional settings, praise men for the same things they criticize women for, and are more likely to focus on a woman’s appearance or personality and on a man’s skills and intelligence.
And, for a little humor, "Reasons you were not promoted that were totally unrelated to gender" at McSweeney's.

Some of the comments on the first article say, in effect, "yeah, the sky is blue, sexism happens, so why are you reporting on it?"  But it's essential to report on this, and to keep reporting on it, because who would have thought, in 2015, we would still be having to talk about this because it was still happening? This isn't a new finding; these behaviors and their consequences have reported on since at least the 1970s.

I experienced an example of the related phenomenon the other day, the one where a woman says something, is ignored, and hears a man make the same point to great acclaim 5 minutes later.  In this case, I was in a meeting, summed up an essential intellectual/conceptual problem fairly elegantly (we all have our moments) and saw the rest of those in the room, all men, nod but otherwise not respond.  Five minutes later, one of the men says the exact same thing, another man says "brilliantly put," and the rest chime in with words of praise.

What's up with that?  Why does that still happen? They obviously heard me, or why else would they have used my phrasing?  Let me take that back: they heard the phrase and the logic, but they didn't hear me.

Why didn't I bang my shoe on the desk and demand to be heard?  Partly because I was amused to see this happen again, because this isn't my first rodeo with this kind of thing, and partly because of the double standard: nothing would be gained, and I would be spending social capital to push the needle of judgment on me toward "crazy and hysterical" instead of "sane and rational." It's not worth it.

There are a few things we can do, though.
  • Stop apologizing. I realized a couple of years ago that I was routinely using the phrase "I'm sorry" when reporting less than optimal news as part of my job and in a lot of other instances.  The turning point came when I realized I'd used "sorry" about 4 times in a single message.  I took them all out and have been writing stronger messages ever since.
  • Sit on your hands once in a while when volunteers are needed. Not all the time, of course, but you don't need to save the world or even your department.
  • Stop explaining. Learn the phrase "No, I won't be there at that time"; you don't need to explain why. They didn't ask you to explain; they asked whether you could be there. Offer another time or two when you'll be available. That's all they really want to know.
  • You are not someone's research assistant (except when they are paying you). When someone says "I wonder if we could collate this information/run this data/match this information with that set/track down these addresses/update this database," say, "I'll put you in touch with someone who can do this" or, better still, "I'll look forward to your results."  
  • Answer the question that you're asked, not the premium version that you think they need to know.  You are not in school any more, and there is no extra credit for email. If they ask you about A, and you reply with information about A, B, C, and D, they won't necessarily care or thank you, and you will have used up your store of time and willpower (h/t nicoleandmaggie) for something that is of no benefit to you.  If they want to know about B, C, and D, they will ask. 
What else can we do? 


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

When I say something in a meeting and then a man says the same things and gets the accolades, I always pipe up with, "Yes, that's exactly what I was talking about! Thank you for supporting my point!" I have become skilled at bringing back the accolades. :)

Then again, I've been accused of being intimidating and pushy. So there's probably a cost associated with that. But my motto is, "If they don't like me for who I am, then I'm not supposed to be here." And I just keep doing what I'm doing. With tenure application three years away, I'm comfortably naive about the implications of my behavior still. :)

Anonymous said...

Men: volunteer more. Don't ask women to do unpaid labor or menial tasks you wouldn't ask a male colleague to do. Acknowledge good ideas from women. Investigate possible salary disparities. Step UP already, fer chrissakes.

undine said...

Fie--I probably should have spoken up as you do, but the moment passed.

nicoleandmaggie--great suggestions!