Saturday, May 16, 2020

Why Do We Really Silence Women? A Discussion on the True Nature of Gender

I spend a lot of time writing about the effects of gender on our personal lives and on our relationships. I also spend a lot of time writing about tribalism through a lens of evolutionary psychology, and how this affects our modern beliefs and behaviors. Lately, thanks to some great conversations with my friend Kimberly, I've started to consider the intersection of these two realms - namely what effects gender has within tribes, especially in the realm of leadership. 

I'm still working on the nuances of the ideas and will write a full post on my hypothesis soon. In the interim, I'm going to address on very specific aspect of gender and leadership - the issue of women being silenced. 

Before you continue reading this post, read the article below. I'll be referencing it throughout the rest of the post.

In this article, the author discusses the persistent problem of women, in mixed groups of men and women, largely being ignored. The exact problem is summed up by this quote from political science professor Chris Karpowicz: 

“Women are systematically seen as less authoritative,” says Preece. “And their influence is systematically lower. And they’re speaking less. And when they’re speaking up, they’re not being listened to as much, and they are being interrupted more.”

Basically, in a group setting where decisions are being made, female participants do not share the same elevated platform as male participants. This observation is not surprising and entirely valid; we have a ton of data in the published literature that confirms this. My own observations across all kinds of circumstances also confirms this. 

The standard narrative permeating the social sciences has a fairly uniform explanation for this phenomenon, which was summed up nicely by political science professor Jessica Preece:

"Rather than outright misogyny, she says it’s usually cultural norms and gendered messages that subtly - and profoundly - shape the rules of engagement. Individuals who suppress female speech may do so unwittingly. “They may love women,” says Preece. “They may even be a woman!” But as a society we have been “slowly socialized over years to discount” female expertise and perspectives."

The professor continues with this explanation when she describes BYU's accounting program and the experiences of women placed in cohort groups:

“Women are systematically seen as less authoritative,” says Preece. “And their influence is systematically lower. And they’re speaking less. And when they’re speaking up, they’re not being listened to as much, and they are being interrupted more.”

When you unpack the nuances of this narrative, it's essentially based on the belief that men are perceived as inherently superior to women, and this is supported by the observation of group dynamics. Men dominate the discussions and decision-making process. 

The article goes on to discuss some experiments involving groups of five who were given a task of distributing money. When the group's decision is determined by majority rule, they found the total talking time and, ultimately, the decisions the groups reached, were dominated by males. Further, the vast majority of the interruptions made by males when women were speaking was negative. After the discussions, the participants rated who was the most influential group member, and it almost always fell to those who talked the most... which were always males. 

Their solution was to change the decision-making protocol from majority rule to unanimous. In that scenario, female influence (and talking time) increased substantially. 

The authors then go on to hypothesize about the problems with the current solutions to this problem.

"From pundits in politics, the business world, and the media, “the solution so often has been, ‘You’ve got to fix the women,’ or, ‘Well, women have just got to lean in,’” says Stoddard. But the experiences women have when they lean in can be very different than a man’s in the same position.
“Advice that works for men doesn’t always work for women, because people react differently,” adds Preece—and this is well supported in the literature. Behavior that seems strong and decisive when it comes from a man, she says, may be interpreted as abrasive and aggressive from a woman. There’s even a term coined for it—the double bind.
“The double bind is huge,” says Stoddard: exhibit traditional female characteristics, she says—warmth, caring, responsiveness to all ideas and assignments—and “you’re going to experience others seeing you as less competent.” But take on male characteristics—leading, disagreeing freely, being assertive, speaking out—and likability suffers. “The competency-likability tradeoff is a constant balancing act for women.”

They accurately point out that the problem isn't the women. But they make a fundamental error in assuming the problem is the environment. This conclusion makes complete sense if you frame gender as a social construct that was designed by men to oppress women (the "patriarchy" narrative), which has been a basic assumption of gender research dating back to the 1960's. If you've read ANY of my other writings on the topic, you'll know I bitterly disagree with this narrative. 

It's flat-out wrong. The authors are correct in that women are not to blame for this "not being heard" problem. However, they're wrong about the environment being the problem. It's understandable; given their incorrect assumptions about the social nature of gender, the environment is the only possible problem. It never occurs to the authors that their basic assumptions about the very nature of gender may be wrong, despite the fact that their narrative hasn't "fixed" this problem despite decades of effort. 

"Karpowitz, Preece, and Stoddard watched all of this unfold anew in the accounting-program study, where the women who were in the minority were routinely seen—by themselves and others—as the least competent, least influential members of their groups. And this is among 20-somethings raised in the era of #LeanIn and #MeToo—arguably a time in which women have been encouraged to be more ambitious and speak out."

Not only have these 20-somethings grown up in a pro-woman culture where gender equality is THE dominant narrative spread anywhere and everywhere, but their parents and even their grandparents have been exposed to the exact same message. Since the 60's, our society has been aggressively pushing this pro-woman narrative. Even in the most educated, liberal of circles where all participants have internalized the belief that men and women are truly equal in every way (sometimes to the point of absurdity), we still see this effect of women being silenced. 

After six decades of trying to fix a problem and having zero success, it's prudent to consider the possibility that we're somehow doing something wrong. I'm suggesting we (really, them) don't understand the actual nature of the problem. And that misunderstanding stems from the fundamental assumptions researchers make about gender. 

What if it's NOT a social construct? What if masculinity and femininity weren't fabricated by men to oppress women? What if we've been trying to solve a problem that isn't actually a problem at all? And perhaps worst of all, what if we've been hurting the very people we've been trying to help while solving this problem that doesn't really exist?

Enter My Hypothesis

I love science because it seeks "the truth", but openly acknowledges the pursuit of "the truth" is a true asymptote. Over time, we get progressively closer to "the truth", but we'll never fully arrive. That means good scientists aren't motivated by discovering that all-encompassing "truth", because they know they never will. Instead, good scientists HAVE to be intrinsically motivated by the process of trying to discover "the truth." So we use empiricism and the scientific method to slowly and systematically disprove various hypotheses. Rule out possibilities. Inch closer to that ever-elusive "truth." Good science forces us to see the world as it is, not the world we WANT to see. When applied correctly to this problem of women not being heard, good science reveals WHY we can't seem to fix this problem. 

The fundamental error the author and the researchers cited in this article make is the same error that's dominated gender research for decades - the assumption that gender is a social construct that was created for the nefarious goal of female oppression. Thanks to ideologies like modern feminism, this same error has been spread to popular culture and has given rise to the modern social justice movement (among others.) In short, this world view assumes something like this does or has actually occurred:

But what if gender isn't a social construct? What if gender is biologically-determined? What if it's innate? What if gender is more like sexual orientation and it's not a choice so much as a fundamental part of who you are? This is the foundation of most of the gender topics I write about, and is explained in greater detail in this post. Give it a read if you're unfamiliar with my arguments.

Back to this scenario. I would argue the group dynamics the researchers observe occurs as a function of our innate behaviors that have developed throughout the millennia, therefore serve an evolutionary purpose. Furthermore, if we embrace THIS narrative, we can easily develop a solution that fixes the "problem."

So What's the Solution?

After twenty years of working as a high school social studies teacher, I've observed countless groups of students. These groups sometimes consist of all males or all females, but mostly contain a mix. I may occasionally create groups just to test my hypotheses. But don't tell my students that. 

Anyway, I've come to realize group environments are not inherently collaborative in nature. They're competitive. Without excessive intervention, all groups always follow the same pattern all the time: Different people will have different ideas, which they share. The person who sells their idea the most effectively by gaining group consensus ultimately "wins", and the group comes up with a solution. 

When it comes to gender roles, masculinity is inherently competitive and hierarchical. In any given situation, the most competent male, as determined by the rest of the group, is deemed the "leader." This position isn't bestowed; this position is earned. In a group setting, the most competent person is assumed to be the leader, and their ideas are the ideas that the group supports. They reach that conclusion based on that masculine person's ability to sell the idea over the other ideas other individuals in the group try to sell. 

Quick sidebar - I'm using the term "masculinity" instead of "male" because it's entirely possible for a woman to exhibit the masculine traits needed to be deemed the most competent person in the group. In these group settings, the bias isn't against women; the bias is against femininity. Subtle but VERY important point.

So within groups, masculine people make the decisions. So where does feminine people fit into this? Are they truly voiceless?

Of course not. 

To understand the role femininity plays, let's go back in time. Imagine we're part of a tribe of hunter-gatherers roaming the plains of pre-colonial America 400 years ago. The tribe has to make an important decision about moving to follow a herd of animals or staying in one place and planting crops. The very survival of the tribe could be at stake. How would the tribe make this critically-important decision?

Ultimately, the decision is likely going to be made by a single person who is willing to assume the responsibility of the lives of the people they care about deeply. If this person makes the right choice, they survive. Wrong choice? People die. So this person is likely going to gather as much information as they can, including information from the tribe itself. Different people in the tribe are going to have different perspectives that will consider different variables. Some people will consider the food variable. Some people will consider other, potentially hostile tribes. Some people will consider access to water. Some people will consider access to fire wood. And shelter. And weather. And a myriad of other practical survival considerations. These people would likely have a more masculine outlook on the situation; they're going to consider how the tribe will get provisions for survival and how the tribe will protect itself from outside threats. 

Some people will also consider how each option would affect the people of the tribe. Will it affect relationships? How will it affect the children of the tribe? How will it affect relationships with the tribes they trade with? How will it affect their ability to recruit new tribe members? These relationship-related variables are more likely to have a more feminine outlook on the situation; they're going to consider how the tribe itself functions as a collection of different individuals. 

The leader of the tribe, the person who has accepted the responsibility for the tribe's very survival, absolutely needs both of these perspectives to make the right decision. Without the masculine perspective, the tribe might starve or be overrun by a more powerful neighboring tribe. Without the feminine perspective, the tribe may rot from within due to interpersonal conflict or be isolated from the outside world and die because the tribe failed to progress as much as competing tribes.

In summary, both the masculine and feminine perspectives very different, but both are absolutely necessary for survival. A good leader recognizes this and values each for what they are: complimentary, necessary perspectives.

When we look at the mechanics of how great leaders make decisions, we see a familiar pattern. They present the problem to a collection of advisors, the advisors mull possible solutions, the advisors report back to the leader, and the leader makes an informed decision. In some way, shape, or form, this is how organizational decisions are made. 

The advisors who will present ideas to the leader are essentially "selling" their ideas. This actual process, as such, is competitive in nature. The best ideas presented by the most persuasive advisors win. This is why these advisors tend to be masculine (again, not necessarily men.) Assertiveness, confidence, and logic are what will make their ideas winning ideas. That's the realm of masculinity, not femininity. 

So where does femininity come into play? 

Throughout this entire process of developing possible solutions, the leader and all the leader's advisors will consult with feminine individuals (who are usually women, but not always women), usually informally. They have conversations. They present the ideas, the feminine individuals consider how those ideas would affect the relationships within and between tribes, then share their thoughts. As I mentioned earlier, this input is absolutely critical to the tribe's survival. 

So why can't femininity be the decision-making gender? 

This is the million-dollar question. In the "gender is a social construct" narrative, femininity is capable of running the show but isn't given the opportunity because of oppression. This narrative probably developed, in part, because women were envious of men in power. Power itself is great, but it also comes with all kinds of nice perks. The person calling the shots makes the most money, attracts the hottest mates, gets the best access to the best food, clothes, private jets... whatever. Who wouldn't want that?!?

The problem with this is two-fold. First, this ignores the fact that the person at the top likely got there because they earned it by beating out all the other inferior people in the tribe. As a masculine male, I can confirm that clawing your way to the top of anything and remaining there is really fucking hard work. Because there's always people fighting for your position. You have constant pressure to be the best as long as you desire the power of being at the top.

Second, being at the top requires one to take on a shit-ton of responsibility for the welfare of the rest of the tribe. Normally this isn't a huge deal... until you have to make a decision that pits the welfare of the group against the welfare of one or a small number of your tribe members you're leading. 

Going back to the hypothetical tribe scenario - let's say the clear best solution is to follow the herd of animals. Maybe the land our tribe is currently occupying is ill-suited for agriculture and staying in one place will make the tribe targets of neighboring, aggressive tribes. Staying in one place exposes the tribe to likely starvation AND war, both of which could doom the entire tribe.

But let's say moving to follow the animal herd means two sick children in the tribe will likely die. Do you choose to endanger the whole tribe, including the two sick children, or do you save the tribe but endanger just those two children? Practically, it's an easy decision. Emotionally, though, that simple decision means your choice will likely kill two children in your tribe. 

That kind of decision requires the ability to dissociate from the emotion of those close relationships of the tribe in order to save the tribe, which is something feminine individuals simply cannot do. Nor SHOULD they do. Nor should we ASK them to do. 

So back to our BYU accounting groups from the posted article. Whenever we convene a group of students, whether it be in my high school psychology class or a group of BYU accounting students, and ask them to do a task, we're inserting them into what amounts to that final stage in my tribe example where a leader is determined and the other group members "sell" their ideas to the leader. This is a competitive environment. As such, masculinity takes center stage and femininity is marginalized. 

We CAN alter that dynamic, as the researchers did in the study described in the article, by requiring unanimous decisions, but this is a decidedly artificial solution to the problem. Forcing the feminine members of the group to participate in the competitive practice of sharing ideas does allow them to speak more, but their ideas are still left behind because they're not being sold with masculine gusto. So it makes us feel good that the feminine people are literally talking more, but the end result is the same - the ideas the feminine members have are largely ignored.

The worst part of this scenario is that the process of forcing the feminine members to compete with the masculine members, we may be robbing them of their opportunity to actually influence the decision-making process, which ultimately hurts the group because decisions lose that feminine perspective.

So what IS the solution?

Based off my hypothesis of how this shit works, the solution needs to be two-fold. First, the leader of the group absolutely has to recognize that any decision pertaining to the group/ organization/ tribe NEEDS both a masculine and feminine perspective. While I think this kind of leadership is rare today, it's not extinct. Truly good leaders intuitively realize decision-making requires both masculine and feminine input and guidance and will seek out both perspectives. But a lot of 'leaders' fail to recognize this, which results in a lot of bad decisions. 

Second, an environment has to be created where the feminine perspective can be shared in a noncompetitive environment. This means we can't just throw people together in a group and ask them to make decisions. That is ALWAYS going to result in masculine voices dominating at the expense of feminine voices, even if we radically alter the "rules" of how the group operates (by measures such as requiring unanimous votes for decisions.) No matter how much we tweak the dials and knobs of group dynamics, this is always going to be a problem. 

So, our solution to this problem is to choose better leaders who understand the value of both the masculine and feminine perspective, AND create a decision-making process that allows the feminine voice to be heard. The first is straight-forward. The second is a little tricky because it requires work outside a group setting where that competitiveness isn't stoked. 

Personally, I've found the easiest way to do this is to simply split groups up and let individuals have one-on-one conversations with each other. in these scenarios, the masculine members tend to share their ideas with the feminine members, and the feminine members share all the relational variables that would influence the masculine member's ideas. In this way, all the ideas that will eventually be proposed in the group setting are filtered through a feminine lens. This dramatically improves the quality of the ideas that are eventually proposed in the group setting. 

Interestingly, the BYU researchers acknowledge this:

"For starters, women are “likely to identify different things as problems in the first place,” says Preece. In politics women often think differently about issues than men do; the literature even shows they can have a cooperative, democratizing impact on deciding bodies. “Women are more likely to think about, What are the needs of families and children and how do we care for those who have the least in our society?” says Karpowitz. “Many men focus on different priorities, such as how to balance the budget or change the tax structure.”

The problem is they fail to understand the underlying dynamics of gender, which leads to misidentify the problem, which leads them to propose solutions that have failed, continue to fail, and will continue to fail into the future. The folks who buy into this narrative, in the process of trying to solve the wrong problem, are making the very problem they're desperate to solve much, much worse.

Like any good scientist, I openly acknowledge I might be totally wrong about all this stuff. But based off my own experimentation and observation, I'm likely a lot less wrong than the BYU researchers. If we can momentarily suppress our emotional reaction to the suggestion that gender roles are complimentary in nature and not oppressive, and that gender roles are innate and not imposed by a nefarious "patriarchy", we can begin to understand the real dynamics at play. That clarity allows us to develop actual solutions to the actual problems. 

For the folks who read through this entire post, give these ideas some thought. After you've pondered them for a bit, share your thoughts with me. 


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.