Emotions, Gender and Surviving academia

Emotions are in vogue in philosophy these days.  I’ve been piling through some of the literature and I keep seeing references to the “fight or flight” response that supposedly all humans feel when they are stressed and angry.   Unfortunately, that idea has been seriously challenged.  Rather, as many of you may know, and as a number of researchers have suggested, there’s also a “tend and befriend” response that is more often a female response.

The idea that there’s a “tend and befriend” response draws on the idea that human beings have an instinct for tending infants and a need for friends.  I think the idea originates most explicitly in Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s 1999 book, Mother Nature.  According to her, the length of the period of helplessness human infants display means that they need a lot of tending, more than one person alone can do.  So the care-taking needs a group of friends.

Another  often quote source is: Taylor, S. E., Klein, L. C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. A. R., & Updegraff, J. A. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review, 107, 411 – 429.

I suspect that the non-feminist philosophical literature** on emotion may lack the idea that there can be gender differences in emotions.  If anyone has evidence to the contrary, please let me know.  As it is, I think that at the conference where I’m supposed to comment on a paper on theories of emotion, I may remark that it is no surprise that the literature is innocent of the idea that there could be such gender differences!

There are very serious implications, of course, to being ignorant of how extensive gender differences can be.  One surprising difference that is suggested by some of the literature is that put-downs from a dominant member of the society can affect men and women quite differently.  In particular, men’s performances improve with such put-downs, while women’s degrade.

Now just suppose what might happen if you were in a field where dominant people sometimes  engaged in putting down the “lower” students and early profs.   Such practices would favor the men, perhaps considerably.

**Perhaps particularly the sort that gets into the really important journals.  :)

Women and Power

Introduction:  Please read first:

I had a lovely dinner last night with a few friends; sitting in an restaurant’s garden and sipping champagne, we were there  to celebrate a success or two.  The discussion turned to having a sense of having power.  No one did.  So this morning I spent some time looking at PsyInfo and other collections on women and power. 

It is very important to get some understanding of feeling a sense of power.  People with such a sense are more likely to act on and improve their environment (assuming they are benevolent and fairly competent).  And we all agree, surely, that it would be good for such people to be shaping institutions in our environment.  In short, we want women to feel more empowered to act.  So I started to think about this and wrote some notes.  Please make of it what you will and add to it what you can.


Let’s assume here that  we’re thinking about power in an organization, and that it has to do with getting one’s choices or decisions realized.  That’s not to say that one aims to benefit one’s self; rather, let’s suppose having power means that one plays a significant role in making happen what one thinks should happen.  Let’s also assume that the goals we are discussing are  ones we generally think are good.  Your goal answers to this if you want to create an important area of study, and doesn’t if you want to spread swine flu so your university closes for a month.

One reaction to a sense of  lacking power would be to accept the lack as an unproblematic given, and to connect it to ways in which women are not encouraged to seek power, are frequently challenged when they have it and, more generally, face stereotypes that are contrary to their having power.

To see it this way is to see the lack of a sense of power as an environmentally created psychological/internal phenomenon.   Many of the self help books assume this is the case, and try to get one to get one’s head straightened out.  Though they also offer advice for dealing with the stereotypes, and for gaining leadership tricks the men have.  Thus one should cultivate a network of friends, and one should think of information as a commodity that one has to share or not, that must be fresh, etc.

But  the situation is much more complicated, and it might be worth thinking about what other factors there are and what can be done about them.  So here are some other factors.  It would be great if others come up with more, or found faults in the ones I describe:

1.  I’m pretty sure that one thing in my academic setting that  gives one power is one’s doing things that  people with officially conferred power highly value.   We have what are astonishingly called the 800 pound gorillas** who march into the provost’s office with their demands, and they get a lot of them.  Typically, they bring in lucrative grants, but there are certainly other ways to become a gorilla, such as getting famous prizes.  If you don’t have power in this way, there may well be a big mismatch between what you value and what your environment values.  [Surprise!!]  This situation can look like the original one, but it isn’t exactly.  It’s not so much that women are thought not to have power but, to take a frequently mentioned example, the community service women tend  to value may not be valued, etc. 

2.  Sometimes one accomplishes things without having a resultant sense of power because it was more persistence than power that  got  one to the goal.  One just tried all the combinations.  And sometimes that’s because the organization one is in is too chaotic for there to be anything like simple paths to achievement.  Other times  it is because there is, e.g., a huge resistance  to change.  And there are many, many variations on these and similar themes.

3.  My environment wants people put in charge  of things (e.g., on committees to do thus and so) who will be predictable, cooperative  and agreeable.  This has created a two tier system of leadership: those the administration thinks are leaders (after all, they appoint them to the leadership committees and positions) and those the faculty think are leaders.  I have no idea how widespread this practice  is, and would love to hear opinions on it.  I’d bet it is pretty widespread.  However, high achievers often and notoriously come out impossible on this model, so I’m assuming there are limits to its universality.

** This praise denotes having lots of  power.  It comes from a kind of people who think it’s really good to be really big and muscular, one supposes.

Si Se Puede!

The title phrase is heard at immigration rallies and it is often translated “yes, we can!”  It is a very powerful and liberating phrase  for girls and young women.  So it isn’t entirely surprising that it shows up in the XX Factor blog, which is connected to Slate and its off shoot, Double X.  It occurs in a post celebrating Rachel Alexandra’s victory.  And it raises a question about the extent of feminism.

The surprising thing is that the apparently feminist hero’s victory is the Preakness.  And she is a horse, filly, girl:

And what a girl! A gorgeous, eager, big-hearted horse with a princessy name, who seemed to genuinely enjoy her run along the storied track where only five fillies have raced since the last female Preakness winner, the perfectly named-for-her-era Nellie Morse, in 1924.


Some troubling conventions, like the expectation that female racegoers will stick out a long day in mile-high hot pink heels, are still with us. But watching Rachel Alexandra reminded me what it feels like to take off your shoes and run as fast as you can. It was a great day to be a woman at the races.

So was the original post a joke?  Or an ironic way of calling attention to the conventions for dress and behavior at horse-racing?  Or does feminism and its heroes extend to some or most  large mammals?  And small ones too? 

And then she’s the first filly to win in 85 years.

What do you think?