Setting Up Women for Failure ... or Success | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Setting Up Women for Failure ... or Success


Donna Ladd

"Good grief." That Facebook comment came right after I posted a 2012 Scientific American piece about a study proving gender bias in science is real. That response came from a man, but it might not have, which makes the problem of unconscious sexism all the more insidious, not to mention an economic hurdle for women, families and ultimately the taxpayers.

In the National Academy of Sciences' randomized double-blind study, science faculty participants rated applications with male names attached "as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant," recommending higher starting salaries and more career mentoring to the "male" applicants.

Get this: Men and women were equally likely to show bias against the female.

This finding isn't new. A Columbia University professor copied a case study created by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Heidi Rozen verbatim—except he changed her name to Howard on half. He gave the case studies to business-school students and surveyed their impressions of Howard and Heidi.

The respondents found the two equally competent, but they did not like Heidi as much based on the document. Howard was the kind of guy they'd like to hang out with, but they weren't sure they could trust Heidi. She, they thought, seemed "out for herself."

Yes, both men and women responded this way to identical case studies. Eek.

This shows the conundrum women face every day. If we do our jobs as well as men do theirs, we're not liked by many men or women as much as they are. It's simple.

I've seen it a million times in my own life and career, and many men who have worked alongside me (including my partner Todd) see it, too. But too many people are still in denial about the way our culture treats even successful and educated women differently.

So it makes a lot of sense that poor and less-educated women become the real dumping grounds for societal blame. And Lord help her if she's raising children alone—a single mother can do nothing right.

She's damned if she wants to use birth control, go into the workforce and manage others, and she's damned if she doesn't. It doesn't feel a whole lot different than the no-win ways too many men and women treat women in management or academia.

But when we share evidence of this inherent bias in a country still infected by male privilege 97 years after women got the right to vote, a progressive man responds with "good grief." That is, people want us to shut up about it—which means it's not going to change if we don't help folks see their own bias. Realizing, of course, that they will like us even less if we keep bringing it up.

Oh well.

Most people don't know they have this bias. It's like the studies proving that even female teachers and professors call on males more in class, which limits women's ability to develop the confidence to speak up, be heard and even be challenged in a "public" setting. All of that, of course, means they limit their earning and success potential over the long haul. And that means they may end up in need of more public assistance: another reason taxpayers ought to sit up and pay attention and help these conversations happen.

It's not easy, though. After Tim Abram, a teacher and JFP columnist, wrote an inspiring column a couple weeks back about facing the reality of male privilege and his role in it, the response was stunning and educational. A lot of men jumped him in comments under the story. They belittled and derided him, in that old "don't let yourself be whipped" tone we know well. They bent themselves into pretzels over the fact that Tim admitted that he benefits from male privilege.

One even called Tim "self-loathing"—which is laughable when you read the column. His self-confidence exudes from his words and his willingness to publish them (using his name). Some men even complained that he wasn't showing up to defend himself, as if they wanted him to duel for his male honor. He clearly doesn't need to.

More than one man I respect on most issues showed up there or on my Facebook page to mansplain that these problems are no worse for women than for men, that jerks are everywhere, blah, blah. Yes, that is true, but you'd have to be living under 97 rocks to not see that women still are treated very differently in our culture. Some of these men have daughters who are just now entering a workforce in which they could encounter both pressure to act that way toward female bosses (thus, hurting vital future connections) or they could, and hopefully will, bulldog through to become the women that others disparage for speaking her mind, deflecting belittlement and doing her job well.

Some even angrily mansplained why mansplaining isn't a real thing. But at least none of them devolved into talking about the size of my butt or bustline in those comments as I've seen happen to women who state their opinions online (myself included). And let's be honest: It's hard for anyone to succeed and excel in the American marketplace if we can't speak our truth and state our opinions without an immediate rush to belittle us into submission.

I've learned to recognize what I'm hearing and differentiate from what I need to learn from and what is just resentment that I'm not a pushover who cowers or cries at empty insults. But I do worry about younger women who must overcome this gauntlet of confusing gender messages, including pressure from men they care about to participate in the historic responses. I've watched a lot of women shoot themselves in the economic foot due to this kind of modeling, sadly.

Plus, this double standard toward women may directly contribute to teen pregnancy and the economic turmoil that can follow. In its March 2014 report, "Teen Births Are Falling: What's Going On?,"the Brookings Institution reported that "increased aspirations and expanded opportunities for young people have the potential to extend the downward trend in teen childbearing."

Most of us get this: A young woman who can see hopes beyond unprotected sex with her boyfriend is more likely to resist sex or at least demand condom use. But when she sees women silenced and belittled, she may already feel trapped onto a narrow path, so why not? The question for us is what messages of respect now—at home, at work and in our culture—will help the earning potential, and self-esteem, of young women (and their mothers and aunts) in the future?

To get there, men and women need to notice society's unconscious biases against supporting women's success. When females get 'splained from every possible direction—with fingers wagging about what she did wrong from people who know less than she does—the effect can be devastating on her daughters, nieces and co-workers who don't want to speak up and be slapped down.

It's time to stop setting girls and women up for failure. Even if you're a woman.

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