Monday, April 14, 2014

Are Women Punished for Seeking Power?

One of the catch-22s of gender relations these days is that women are hemmed by both realistic power structures that do exist, as well as by perceptions of what ‘should’ exist.

Specifically regarding gender stereotypes, many people expect not only that women are more modest in their presentation and interactions, but that they should be more modest.

So what happens when women violate these stereotypes?

That was the question that Professor Victoria Briscoll of Yale University posed in her seminar on “Women and Power: Hard to Earn, Difficult to Signal, and Easy to Lose.” She broke her answer into three parts.

First, women often have to manage people’s impressions of their rise to power. Their intention of seeking power and authority appear inconsistent with people’s perceptions that women should be communal and not dominating. So even female politicians like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Patty Murray, who are essentially in the business of power, often downplay the fact that they are there, insisting that they “never expected to run for office.”

Second, once in power, men and women often communicate differently to continue this impression management. According to a great deal of social psychological research, ‘powerful’ people are often given a license to talk more than people with less power, who signal deference. Moreover, women tend to lead in more democratic, non-hierarchical fashions than men. So in spaces like the US Senate floor, men talk to display power, while women tend to talk to establish and maintain relationships and advocate for communal rather than personal causes. This is often in the effort to avoid backlash.

Finally, women’s power is often more fragile and easily lost than that of men. In the case of expressing anger, women are almost always penalized for this, while angry white men are sometimes rewarded for being assertive. But when women can explain their anger away to an external source, women are rewarded.

So clearly there’s a lot of work for society to do. To get there, do women need to keep on adjusting what they do? How can we get societal expectations to change in the long run?

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Monday, April 7, 2014

Did the plough doom us to millennia of gender inequality?

'Women are supposed to stay at home and raise children.' 'Men are supposed to work and bring home money to provide for the family.'

Throughout the world, we have many ideas of which gender should be responsible for what---perhaps the most fundamental and universal has been employment roles. Why is that?

One theory has to do with the nature of work: the economic structures of "traditional" society were largely manual labor based, almost necessarily ensuring the centrality and dominance of the physically more muscular male in economic production. People have argued that this started with the plough thousands of years go: before the plough, men and women were equal economically in that both could till soil and gather food by hand with equal skill. Accordingly, they were largely equal socially, intellectually, and in terms of power.

But when the plough was invented, it required a great deal of upper body strength to produce more agricultural output. So the gathering work that women did became less economically relevant, and the remaining work was left to the physically stronger sex---by nature's course, this was usually the male. Most consequential economic activity became dependent on the successful physical performance of the male. This was furthered by the thought that women’s interaction with domesticated farm animals would reduce fertility levels.

In his seminar last week on “The Origins of Gender Roles: Women and The Plough,” Alberto Alesina of Harvard University explored the effects of this ancient technological innovation on today’s perception of gender roles. The fact that work was bifurcated along gender lines so long ago, he argues, has meant that these norms and expectations persist even centuries after humans moved beyond agriculture as the primary economic activity.

Controlling for things like ethnicity, politics, and geographic features, Professor Alesina and his colleagues matched up traditional and ancient plough usage with today’s women’s labor market participation and perceptions of gender equality and norms. They found that there is, in fact, a strong correlation between ancient plough usage and gender inequality today. That technology affected not just the realities of work, but also the norms, markets, institutions, and policies that were shaped around them.

Since then, however, we’ve seen some profound changes in economics. Urbanization and industrialization, for example, brought women back into the workforce in a large way and galvanized the women’s and labor rights movements---to say nothing of the service sector. And though today’s inequality may have its roots in ancient technologies, it is still propagated by harmful norms and narratives that we certainly can control.

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Monday, March 31, 2014

Does full time work affect childhood development?

Over the last generation, there have been an increasing number of working parents---a phenomenon that’s enabled more couples to be more financially comfortable, on the whole. But it’s come with the healthily and effectively raise children the way parents would like.

The last few decades have produced research on the effects of full time maternal employment on the behavior and achievement of children---but the conclusions of this research have been mixed, and largely reflected the prevailing ‘wisdom’ of the moment.

Understanding the perceptions of these effects, however, can tell us multitudes about the decisions that women are making today. In her seminar on “Stereotype Accuracy: Do College Women Miss the Mark when Estimating the Impact of Maternal Employment on Children’s Development?,” Professor Wendy Goldberg of UC Irvine discussed how college women frame the issue---and how accurate those stereotypes are.

She and her team found that most women overestimate the negative effects of motherhood on their children---i.e. they’d assume that working mothers would raise children with worse behavioral problems like aggression and depression, and that perform worse academically---and that women underestimate the positive effects: that having a working mother would provide a roll model as well as greater financial opportunities for her children, among others.

Accordingly, many mothers may seek to adjust their work lives accordingly, with part-time work or opting out entirely. The effect of this might be either a greater inclusion of mothers into the workforce, or a gender-segregation by jobs---particularly those who seek to advance after a break for childcare. Moreover, steady work reportedly offers the greatest mental and physical health benefits to women. Stereotypes regarding the negative effects of working mothers must thus be dispelled.

Of course, full time work is not a choice for many women and parents. Not all women have equal access to long-term, full time work, while women of disadvantaged economic backgrounds have even less flexibility. Thus more attention to paid parental leaves and subsidized childcare would help us get to a better place for all mothers, fathers, and children throughout society.

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

How can mothers win? Ending the bias against caretakers.

As we’ve seen, both women and men face challenges reconciling work-life integrity. Usually, individuals are forced to adjust their own behavior: share household burdens, manipulate supervisors’ perceptions, or just opt out entirely.

What makes this whole balancing process harder is that caretakers suffer a particular bias at work. In her seminar last week on “Reducing the Caretaker Penalty: Norms, Laws, and Organizational Policy,” Stanford University’s Shelley Correll demonstrated how mothers, for example, are paid less than both fathers and childless women---nearly 5-7% less per child, in fact. But it’s difficult to overcome this because of two absurd and paradoxical societal perceptions:
  • The assumption that mothers are less committed to their office work
  • The normative view that mothers should be more committed to their children than their office work-and if they’re not, they’re bad people.
If mothers try to work their way out of the caretaker bias, they’re seen as selfish, arrogant, and dominant, and are penalized accordingly. Basically, mothers can’t win!

So can laws change societal norms? Professor Correll explains how, yes, they can not only provide punitive protections but also create more symbolic social consensus that implies what’s right and wrong.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives employees that have worked for over twelve months in an organization with more than 50 people the right to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year. Just knowing about FMLA and other organizational leave policies positively affects how colleagues view mothers and other caretakers who take short leaves. Even a limited law that’s weakly enforced can promote gender equity.

If we enable workplace leave more reflexively, we can prep society for more openness, namely to the reality that all people---men, women, rich, poor---have and must honor responsibilities outside of the workplace. As Professor Correll put it, “work should be a verb, not a place,” and Best Buy’s management has pioneered Results Only Work Environments (ROWE), where employees are paid for results and output rather than the number of hours worked.

Convincing employers and supervisors of the merits of this kind of flexibility might be more difficult, because they may have legitimate concerns about their workforce. But these employers ought to keep two things in mind. One is that their own expectations of different groups---women caretakers, African Americans, etc---are often incorrectly biased, and these are biases that impede a fair and efficient workplace. Another is that more flexible work environments will mean longer-term retention of good workers.

Low- and hourly-wage workers and their employers face another challenge: their work is inherently based on time commitment, and already feels risky. Even if they can afford it financially, these workers don’t want to take FMLA because it will prejudice their employers upon return.

Accordingly, good laws are even more important in these cases, setting the norm for what is right.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Are women more moral than men?

Are women more moral than men?

There have long been the stereotypes of the “nurturing mother” and the “strict father”. But what does this mean in more real circumstances?

Jooa Julia Lee, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School, recently presented some of her work, with David Tannenbaum of UCLA, on just this subject. In “Gender and Moral Decision-Making,” she looked at how women and their decisions are perceived in society.

Off the bat, there’s the idea that when a white man is “agentic,” he’s seen as assertive, authoritative, ambitious and, fundamentally, a leader. But when a woman is agentic, she’s seen as bossy, aggressive and emotional. Accordingly, when people think of competent managers, they tend to think of males and masculinity. Women, meanwhile, are expected to be “communal”: empathetic, gentle, and compassionate.

Lee wondered whether these associations are driven by the actual decisions that leaders make---particularly when there’s a moral conflict between doing what’s best for the greater good (utilitarian choices) and doing no harm (neutral, deontological choices).

After a series of simulations and psychological tests, they found that when individuals were asked to suppress their emotions, they were more likely to make utilitarian decisions; that cognitive and emotional processes are in conflict when moral decisions need to be made.

How does this affect perceptions of gender? Well, when told about a hypothetical Mayor Edward Jones making massive lay-offs, people saw him as a decisive, moral leader who could make the best decision for the city. But when the name was changed and Mayor “Elizabeth” Jones made those same lay-offs, she was seen as an immoral, bad leader.

Because of these biased perceptions, female utilitarian decision-makers are not given as many leadership positions. To overcome this, Lee suggests that women use the system while advancing what needs to be done: blend agentic and communal leadership styles by making the tough, utilitarian decisions that must be made, while also being empathic and building strong relationships.

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Monday, March 3, 2014

Why (and how) we shouldn't have it all

Debates over whether women should lean in, lean out, have it all or just some have been raging over the last few years, with few clear answers. Should women emulate men? Adjust what they’re doing to gain power? Opt out entirely?

At this week’s WAPPP Seminar on “Different Ways of Not Having It All: Work, Care, and Gender Change in the New Economy,” NYU Sociologist Kathleen Gerson suggests that the answers can’t, and shouldn’t be that simple.

While women have made tremendous strides in the workplace and at home, we’re entering a whole new economic era, where the boundaries between work and home, local and global job markets, and part and full-time work are all blurring---to say nothing of changing gender norms in most vocations.

Meanwhile, even household norms are changing, with more women working outside the home even through a child’s life, work tensions affecting marital relationships, and greater expectations of parental involvement throughout a child’s life.

As a result, both economics and home life are changing and becoming even less secure: careers aren't quite the linear, predictable paths they used to be, nor are household expectations of, and demands on both partners.

There are three main ways that people are thinking about these changes:
  • “Neotraditional” arrangements, in which both partners work and are committed to one another, but one partner “specializes” in care, while the other “specializes” in breadwinning
  • “Self-Reliance,” where, even in committed relationships, both partners work to provide money and care in equal doses---without counting on the other.
  • and “Gender flexibility,” in which there is an egalitarian sharing of earning and caretaking, but a vague meaning of equality: care and breadwinning are responsibilities assigned not by gender, just what needs to be done

Both men and women would prefer gender-flexibility as an ideal arrangement. But in practice, women tend to fall back to more self-reliant positions, while men reflexively tend toward neotraditional arrangements. This is partly because men are still under the subtle yet profound pressure of the male breadwinner ideal: a man who can’t support his family is unmarriageable and “isn’t a man.” Even equality is seen as chivalrous: “equality means the woman has a choice; but I don’t.”

In practice, a third of people are “neotraditionalists,” with fathers left managing time-demanding jobs. About a third of people are “on their own,” and are left to rear children by themselves or without a committed partner. One of six couples have reversed traditional roles, with women providing more financially, but this leading to resentment in the relationship. And another sixth are “equal, but exhausted.”

At the end of the day, these choices are not about gender, but universal hopes to have a balanced life with predictable work and secure relationships---all permutations of which will require trade-offs. The erosion of job and relationship security are permanent conditions with which we must all contend; to do so we may have to redefine the responsibilities of being a man and a woman in the modern world.

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Monday, February 24, 2014

Lean Back: How do we stop working too much?

“He’s a very good employee; he works late every day.”

How many times have you heard someone say something like this, implying that the amount of time someone works is indicative of the quality of their work?

In this week’s seminar on “Imposed vs. Desired Professional Identities: Embracing, Passing, Revealing and their Consequences,” Professor Erin Reid of Boston University looked at whether this idea is true, and how workers at a competitive management consulting firm feel about it.

Professor Reid starts with the idea that the most desirable worker, according to this organization, is one that is always available for and committed to their work---a profile that is assumed to describe men more than women, who supposedly prioritize home life more. And in fact, large firms often assess their personnel based not on the quality of their output, but on the time they put in and their attitude towards doing so; the idea of “billable hours” practically imposes this on an organization.

She finds, however, that even in this competitive, demanding organization, more than 57% of the workers feel a conflict with this norm: they don’t want the time commitment to harm their family lives, they don’t want their health to suffer, and fundamentally, they don’t think putting in more hours necessary means better work or a better life.

But the way they deal with this conflict differs. Those that openly reveal their preferences for normal working hours by asking for leave or telling colleagues about their non-office priorities, were often penalized by the firm: passed over for promotions or outright fired. But others simply passed off their preferences by making others think that they were working longer than they were, or that they were committed to office work mentally even while prioritizing non-office activities. These people were often rewarded by their colleagues and by management.

In the short term, this would indicate that to get the best of both worlds, employees should just pretend to be committed to 18-hour days while actually finding ways around it---ducking out early, making arrangements to work from home, being strategic about who in the office they tell and how.

But more consequentially, this conflict speaks to an American tendency to think that “more time at work” equals “better work,” which is not necessarily true---in fact it’s often the opposite. Not only do work-life balance and social relations suffer, but the quality of work itself suffers when people are overworked and exhausted. And contrary to common perceptions, women and men are realizing this at equal rates.

While the gender equality discourse has recently been dominated by Sheryl Sandberg’s exhortation to “Lean In”---i.e. to work as hard as you must to get a place at the table---Rosa Brooks writes that “We've managed to create a world in which ubiquity” in the office and the home “is valued above all.” This is an untenable recipe for disaster.

Instead, women “need to fight for our right to lean out...If we're going to fight the culture of workplace ubiquity, and the parallel and equally pernicious culture of intensive parenting, we need to do it together---and we need to bring [men] along, too. They need to lean out in solidarity, for their own sake as well as ours.”

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