Rationality of Women’s Unassertiveness, and Philosophy

For some time now, it’s been widely known that women are less likely to negotiate for higher pay, ask for promotions, or more generally put themselves forward professionally. This can serve as a useful excuse for women’s lack of advancement from those who don’t want to do anything to try to change things, and it can also serve as an impetus to try to teach girls and women to be more assertive professionally. But both of these responses may be a mistake. A recent study shows that women who do ask for promotions, try to get raises, and so on, are viewed more negatively than men who do these things. Thus, simply focussing on changing women’s behaviour may actually hurt the women who are successfully urged to be more assertive. (Though, over time, a trend toward greater female assertiveness could help to normalise it.) Women may be responding wholly rationally to their environments, and in fact doing what best serves their interests– asking for a promotion would hurt them, so they’re better off not asking. This fits very well with research reported in Virgina Valian’s excellent  Why So Slow? There (e.g. pages 134-5), she discusses many experiments showing that both men and women have different normative expectations for women and men. Women with assertive leadership styles are viewed more negatively by both women and men. (Interestingly, the more recent study shows only men penalizing women for assertive behavior.) This is especially problematic, Valian notes, because other studies show that women have to be more assertive just to be heard. Valian is especially interested in the fact that all of this seems to happen on a largely subconscious level, involving what she calls ‘gender schemas’. People may explicitly espouse and genuinely hold the belief that women and men are equally capable, that it’s good for women to be assertive, and so on– and yet they are still affected by subconscious gender schemas. One way of dealing with this is to make people aware of gender schemas and their effects: if a person is genuinely committed to sex equality, becoming more aware of ways that she may be subconsciously undermining this commitment can potentially make a real difference. So, perhaps, rather than (or in addition to) trying to make women more assertive, we should also be working to make people aware of the negative ways they react to assertive women.  I also find myself wondering how this might relate to low numbers of women in philosophy:

  •  Could women’s tendency against assertiveness be holding them back in a field where assertiveness (in the form of argumentativeness) is especially highly valued?  Are assertive women penalized in philosophy in the same way as elsewhere?  If so, women in philosophy face a double-bind:  They need to be assertive in order to behave as we expect philosophers to behave, but if they are they are penalized for it.  I’d be interested to know what readers think.

 Many thanks to reader Meg for this one. Amanda at Pandagon also has a good discussion of this stuff.  (I’ve retitled the post as I realized the original title didn’t reflect the content very well!)