Saturday, April 18, 2009

Q&A #1 - Hostile Environments for Women

Oh, Toaster Sunshine. You have brought up one of the most complex issues in gender research. 

On my previous post, I asked readers to tell me what they wanted to learn about with regard to human social behavior. Toaster asked the following:
"2) Men are socialized to think of women in terms of conquest and possession (e.g., "chasing tail", "she's my girl", etc.). Traditionally male-dominated workplaces, such as scientific research, are usually perceived as hostile by women due to the men still working in them. Could this be due to men not being able to dissociate their professional endeavors from the women-as-conquest mentality? At the same time, men have bluntly coded normative body langauges that reinforce group inclusiveness through communication forms homogeneity. Women have their own forms. Men don't always understand these. Could additional hostility in professional settings also be due to men not understanding women's body language or language subtexts and therefore prescribing stereotypical labels (e.g., "office floozy", "administrative bitch", etc.)?"
This question/issue deals with the very heart of what has come to be known as Objectification Theory. Objectification Theory was first proposed by Barbara Frederickson:
"Objectification Theory posits that girls and women are typically acculturated to internalize an observer's perspective as a primary view of their physical selves. This perspective on self can lead to habitual body monitoring, which, in turn, can increase women's opportunities for shame and anxiety, reduce opportunities for peak motivational states, and diminish awareness of internal bodily states.....Although sexual objectification is but one form of gender oppression, it is one that factors into - and perhaps enables - a host of other oppressions women face, ranging from employment discrimination and sexual violence to the trivialization of women's work and accomplishments."
(Frederickson, B. L. & Roberts, T. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women's lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 173-206.)

The first thing I want to say here is that until recently, objectification research focused on the effects it has on women. We have since learned that men are affected by it as well. No one can clearly demonstrate that the effects are as strong or less strong than they are on women. So what I am going to do here is give you the answer that MOST researchers would give to this question. Then I'm going to give you my own answer, based on personal experience and the social psychological framework from which I, personally, operate. 

Generally, it is believed that men have a tendency to immediately evaluate women's attractiveness upon encountering them. Most of the time, this evaluation is sexual in nature. "Would you do her" is a question that men seem to pose to themselves and sometimes to their peers whenever they see a woman. Women know this. It is often referred to as "the male gaze" and has been discussed on many occasions here in the blogosphere, most recently at Comrade PhysioProf and the connected ScienceBlog pages. (See my post on Norah Vincent's book "Self-Made Man" for an example of this.)

The basic idea of how objectification creates a sense of hostility in a woman's work environment is this: a woman feels as though she is under constant scrutiny for something over which she has little to no control. She is an object rather than a person. Her appearance matters more than her accomplishments and contributions. 

I have a lot of problems with this. First, there is the problem of experiencing objectification as a woman considered attractive compared to one who is not. Second, there are many women out there who experience the male gaze and feel objectified in the workplace frequently, but would not describe their environment as hostile. Thirdly, it has been demonstrated that women objectify other women to almost the same extent, but how this impacts the workplace has not been explored to my knowledge. Fourthly, as I mentioned previously, we now know that objectification impacts men, but we do not have enough research looking at workplace interactions to throw discrimination of women under the umbrella of objectification. In other words, if both men and women experience it but only women are affected by it, there must be something else going on. 

Toaster brings up several other issues as well - differences in communication, in-group processes, and male cognitive dissonance. That's a lot of complexity for such a seemingly simple phenomenon. 

My own take on this issue stems from personal experience and from research I have done on women in science and their perceptions of workplace hostility and stigma consciousness. 

Women in male-dominated fields tend to feel pressure to conform to certain male characteristics - a way of communicating, a way of dressing, etc. In order to succeed, one might feel as though she needs to minimize obvious characteristics of difference. In other words, she doesn't want to stand out. Standing out leads to stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is when a person's performance is affected by their awareness of being in a position where they might be seen as conforming to a stereotype. Often, the performance deficit leads to BEING the stereotype that threatens them. It turns out that stereotype threat also has a physiological component (see Murphy, Steele, & Gross. (2007). Signaling Threat. Psychological Science, 18(10).)

The most well-known experiments dealing with stereotype threat in women have to do with math performance. If you prime women with information that females have lesser math ability than men, they will perform worse on mathematical tests than women who are given positive or neutral priming. Women under stereotype threat also show heightened physiological signs of stress. 

(I'm losing steam here, because I think my brain might explode from trying to organize my thoughts and translate them into coherent sentences. Bear with me.)

I believe that much of perceived workplace hostility can be boiled down to stereotype threat. It does not require an active component on the part of the men in the case of women's stress. It only requires an awareness of having the status of "other." Being outnumbered, in other words, can be enough to trigger stereotype threat and the resulting physiological effects. 

Being afraid to cry at work, dress in feminine clothing, communicate openly, etc., can be triggered or mitigated by the gender makeup of the group. If you are a woman in a large group of men, you are going to feel more on-edge and perceive a higher level of potential hostility than in a group that is more gender balanced. 

I do not mean to say that the hostility does not actually exist. It had to, at some point, to create the phenomenon of stereotype threat in the first place. But researchers can induce stereotype threat in imagined scenarios. It doesn't have to be real to have an effect!

Okay, I have to stop now. LOL. I know that there are things missing from this post, but if I keep going I will be writing this blog all day. So I will leave it to you folks to point out the gaps in the comments so that I can at least focus on the parts you find interesting and important, rather than what I consider to be interesting and important. 


PhizzleDizzle said...

I HATE stereotype threat. it's a shitty feeling. this post reminds me a lot of the conclusions of the studies i talked about here, about how if you get 3 women on a corporate board the whole board functions better - perhaps it's because the women cease to feel like tokens and thus stereotype threat is removed, then their contributions are a lot less conformative (to avoid stereotype threat), and the diversity of ideas on a board yield better corporate performance. wow, what a sentence. but i do think it's linked.

Mrs. CH said...

Women in male-dominated fields tend to feel pressure to conform to certain male characteristics - a way of communicating, a way of dressing, etc.I see this quite a lot in my field (physics/astronomy), especially with the style of dress. Astronomers are almost overly casual - if you went to a dinner banquet at an astronomy conference, most people would be wearing shorts, socks and sandals. So, even if a woman wears a conservative top and skirt, she still stands out.

There seems to be a stigma where, if one takes the time to look good, they must not be spending that time on research. Why brush your hair or put on make-up when you can be in the lab? So, everyone seems to go to the opposite side of the spectrum to compensate.

It's one of the things I hate about astronomy. DH is in a medical field and, at his conferences, you'd look like a fool if you wore anything more casual than dress shirt/pants.

PhizzleDizzle said...

I hear you. The more unkempt you look, the more intelligent and devoted to your subject you are assumed to be. I generally find the most wildly unkept people are also the most dick-ish.

Toaster Sunshine said...

Thanks for taking the time to answer my question. It was...inspired? noticing that men communicate primarily through body stance and angles and women largely through actual facial expressions.

Mrs. CH:
Why brush your hair or put on make-up when you can be in the lab?However, please don't brush your hair in the lab. We had someone who would do this and her hair wound up everywhere and in everything. I'm fine with people coming in however they want so long as they observe safety regulations (e.g., no open-toed shoes), but at the same time I don't want to find their hair inside my experiments.

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