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!)

11 thoughts on “Rationality of Women’s Unassertiveness, and Philosophy

  1. It would indeed be interesting to find out whether women’s tendency towards nonassertiveness hold them back in philosophy. My own attempt to be assertive has sometimes been met with a negative attitude from male colleagues. In one department I was consistently reprimanded for speaking up in department meetings. In another I was told that I was greedy for questioning the motivation for a particularly low raise I had received. I silently noticed that male colleagues were treated differently.

  2. Brit, that fits *exactly* with the recent study. Very interesting. I’ve been lucky enough to have assertiveness rewarded and supported in my current department– my difficulties were in an earlier department in which I didn’t feel comfortable enough to be assertive. I don’t know whether assertiveness would have been rewarded there or not. Maybe I was correctly picking up on a hostility to women’s assertiveness, but if felt much more like simply being insecure and intimidated by a very aggressive atmosphere!

  3. That should have been ‘very interesting and appalling’. Because it is really, really appalling– even though it’s apparently quite commonplace.

  4. The study prompts three observations of my own, which may be related to some degree.

    First, years ago when I started at a new institution, I realized that I should negotiate my salary. I therefore went so far as to propose that I be paid what I had been paid at my former institution(!). The response, on the part of the VP(Academic), was that people were paid too much at my previous institution. (You might wonder why I would take a position at a place that was complacent about paying me less than my previous employer. The reason was that the new place offered more long-term opportunities.)

    Second, I had occasion, a few years ago, to observe that in general, humanities departments at my university are not well promoted. That is, their members do not get their research featured in university publications and media outreach. To read superficially about my institution, you would think that it was comprised almost entirely of scientists and MBA educators. Surely it is no coincidence that only in the humanities are women close to being 50% of the faculty. (Not in philosophy, of course, which is a persistent exception, but in English literature, religious studies, “foreign” languages, and history.)

    Third, when for a number of years I had a minor administrative position, I endeavoured to encourage women (in any field) and humanities people (of all sexes) to self-promote: to announce their books, their prizes, their teaching awards, their grad students’ successes. But I got at best only a very tepid response from members of both groups. They were just not willing to “go public” on their achievements. When I discussed the problem with our media department, the media folks said that scientists were happy to seek publicity, and did so repeatedly, whereas folks in the humanities did not. (Indeed, the media department tended to blame the folks in the humanities for their lesser visibility, whereas I–silly me–thought it was the responsibility of the media department to seek out news from humanities faculty.)

  5. One of the reasons I became disinterested in academic philosophy, right as I was finishing up my MA, was the tendency of philosophers to argue rather than discuss. This tendency is related to the ‘assertiveness’ discussion, I think, because, in traditional philosophy, making a good argument often means winning a debate, rather than coming to find a truth.

    If it does turn out to be the case that there are fewer women in academic philosophy because of the possible reasons you cite, one change that could be made would be to encourage all philosophers to discuss, rather than debate–this would help with the numbers of women in the discipline, but it would also help philosophy, I think.

  6. I think there’s a useful distinction that is emerging between different things that can be called ‘assertiveness’. One is a willingness to speak one’s mind, stand up for what one believes, request what one deserves, and so on. That seems good, and like something philosophy departments (and other places) should encourage. It’s something that women are often socialised not to do, and something the cited studies suggest women are penalised for doing. Another is combativeness, which is something philosophy departments often value but– I agree with Jeff– something that they shouldn’t value, as it gets in the way of truth-seeking and also makes life very unpleasant. Again, women are socialised not to do this. and it’s in general good not to do this, except that (a) it can hold one back in places where combativeness is the norm; and (b) it is sometimes important to fight for things, and women may be trained not to fight even when they should. Anyway, I fully agree with Jeff that philosophy is better– for both women and men– when there’s less combativeness.

  7. I strongly recommend a relatively “old” article that is still relevant to understanding philosophy’s combativeness. It is Janice Moulton’s “A Paradigm of Philosophy: The Adversary Method”, published in 1983 in “Discovering Reality,” edited by Sandra Harding and Merrill B. Hintikka.
    Also, any philosophers who have given papers to groups of academics from non-philosophy disciplines may have noticed how different their response can be. It is often creative, suggesting a new line of thought or posing a connection to someone else’s work. It often elicits further ideas about the implications of the argument, or points out concepts that deserve development. In short, it is usually worthwhile and seldom as stressful as giving papers at philosophy meetings!

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