Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Double Bind

If you are a woman, which do you prefer? Being liked, but not respected or being respected, but not liked.

What's that, you say? You don't like either option? You prefer to be both respected and well-liked? Like your male colleagues?

Unfortunately, women in science and other traditionally male fields may find themselves in a double-bind situation in which they experience a more complex political dynamic than men. This dynamic is sometimes referred to as "ambivalent sexism". The experience is one in which a woman who adheres to more traditional feminine behavior in her interactions is liked, but often not viewed as professionally competent as her male counterparts. Women who depart from the feminine profile may be respected (or their work is respected), but viewed as "too aggressive", "odd", or having other personality "issues". The latter woman is sometimes the butt of department jokes and may be left out of unofficial office social gatherings.

Sure, some women succeed at being both respected and liked. But others do not..for various reasons, some internal, but mostly external. If you are lucky enough to work in a truly egalitarian lab, then count your blessings. If not, then read on.

Gender bias is no longer as blatant as it once was.  Nowadays, it can be quite difficult to spot (which may explain why some people, particularly men, insist it no longer exists or is rare).  There may be little or no overt gender bias, and the workplace culture may be superficially egalitarian and seemingly benign.  Most workplaces, however, are inhabited by at least a few people with traditional views of men and women and "acceptable" behavior by the sexes.  Even though the institution strongly prohibits gender-based bias, individual beliefs and behaviors determine how women are actually treated in the workplace.  Also, the workplace culture may be strongly pro-masculine in its reward system, i.e., reflects a historically male-oriented means of doing business.  The resultant gender bias is virtually invisible to males.  A woman may also not recognize it initially, especially if her workplace makes a show of supporting women and diversity in general.  However, the professional woman may find the work atmosphere strangely stressful, uncomfortable, confining, or somehow not in synch with her own self-view.  She can't quite put her finger on what it is that bothers least not until something obvious happens to reveal the double bind.

The double bind often becomes apparent when the issues of leadership, work-life balance, or self- promotion (bragging) come into focus and are more carefully scrutinized with respect to how men and women in the same positions are judged.

The Leadership Double Bind:  Good leaders are expected to be strong, confident, and assertive.  However, when women act with confidence and take charge, they may be judged to be too aggressive, self-promoting, ambitious, or uncaring.  If instead, the woman behaves less assertively (quietly influential, for example), she is judged to be a poor leader. 

The Work-Life Balance Double Bind:  A lot of workplaces purport to be "family-friendly" with flexible hours, paid leave for family issues, etc.).  However, the person who fails to follow the traditional male model of putting work before family (in a workplace that expects it) is judged to be a poor performer.  Those men and women who put in long hours are rewarded, and those who don't are viewed as less devoted to their work. Although some men may be nurturing and take time for their families, it's more often the woman on whose shoulders these family chores fall.  Males with traditional wives will have an edge over their female counterparts in such a workplace . The female professional without a "stay-at-home spouse" may have to take advantage of the "family-friendly" options to balance work and personal life and consequently be viewed as less productive.  This bias will express itself in various subtle ways. I recall recently a male professor wondering if a female professor should head up a large research project due to the demands of her "large family" (she has three children).

The Self-Promotion Double Bind:  Women are more often chastised for being a "shameless self-promoter" whereas a man is expected to talk about his accomplishments.  I was once chided by a male supervisor for announcing an award I received (even though such announcements were routine in my workplace). The reason given was that I would make my colleagues "jealous". 'Nuff said.

The Team-Player Double Bind: Another common experience of female professionals is being referred to as a "lone wolf" or "not a team player" if she develops a project on her own, whereas a guy will be praised for his initiative and "striking out on his own". I've gotten this very criticism despite a long history of working as part of large research teams. It took only a single case of getting a small grant to do a project on my own to be branded with the term "lone wolf". It seemed that while I was working as part of a team, I could be safely viewed as a follower, or at least not a leader, a more masculine role. When I deviated from that role and showed I could succeed without anyone's (i.e., male) help, it caused consternation in some observers, who quickly tried to shame me back into the more feminine role of follower/supporter.  Female colleagues report that predatory male scientists try to horn in on (or take over) particularly successful research projects they (the female) initiated; when rebuffed, the male reacts by charging her with "not being a team player".

By the way, when you hear yourself (or someone else) being characterized in black-and-white, derogatory terms (lone wolf, bossy, not a team player), be assured that bias is at work.

In misogynist workplaces, women may get along by playing one of three feminine roles (there may be more, but these come to mind):

1. The Mother/Wife who volunteers to do clerical, service, or low-level lab tasks that are not her duty but that frees up the men to do the more "important stuff".  She often cleans up after male colleagues (who may see nothing wrong with this behavior since their mothers/wives do this for them as well).

2. The Faithful Companion/Mistress who aligns herself with a powerful male and never challenges his superiority or upstages him.  There are several variations on this theme. 

3. The Cheerleader who praises male coworkers/colleagues and remains modest and quiet about her own skills. In some cases, female support staff may fulfill this role by complimenting the alpha males and admonishing the female professional for not being similarly starry-eyed about the workplace's Golden Boy(s).

Let me hasten to add that I'm not advocating the above roles as a solution (ha).  I'll try to write a later post with some better approaches to dealing with the double bind and other gender biases.

You might say that someone in a double-bind situation should just ignore it and focus on her job and career.  However, being disliked or disrespected is just another stress on top of other stresses and biases. These little stresses add up, and eventually some women decide that it's just not worth the hassle. The scientific community loses out when talented women drop out.

For more on the Double Bind and other gender bias patterns, see the Gender Bias Learning Project.


PhyPhoFu said...

That all sounds very grim. How prevalent do you think it is these days? I am a female in a male-dominated field (but still a relatively young PhD student) and haven't personally experienced stuff like this. I do think my department is good in that respect, though, and the country I live in has a relatively good record of promoting gender equality, though it still has a long way to go.

FrauTech said...

Great post. It all rings very true for me. The worst seems to be even for women who do not have kids (or maybe are even not married) the expectation is there that she will reproduce and work will take a backseat. It's like every female employee is a potential mother and therefore a waste of time. The man all have 2-3 children and nobody questions it (or asks what kind of fathers they are when they work so late).

I like your last three profiles. I never really thought about the second quite like that but you are right I see it everywhere. I'd say a variation on the first is the secretary. Women expected to do clerical tasks for the guys b/c they are the only woman (and so must be organized and have good handwriting etc). It's kind of a double edged sword. Being the notetaker has gotten me involved in meetings I know they otherwise would not include me in with their good ol' boys club, on the other hand taking notes does not earn one technical respect. And speak up and you are criticized for not fawning the alpha dog in the meeting or having a technical opinion is somehow seen as self-promotion.