Another university in my city just gave a wonderful day-long symposium/workshop on women in philosophy.  There was a lot to take away from the main speakers, Carla Fehr and Sally Haslanger, and the comments and suggestions of others.  Among other things, Sally mentioned micromessaging, a notion that appears first in management theory.

When one thinks about the climate of a department, micromessaging should be considered an important part of it.

Micromessages are small, largely non-verbal signals that we send and pick up in many, and perhaps all, conversational set ups.  They might range from the different amounts of time people are allowed to speak to whether a more powerful person looks others in the eye.  If you have talked to people at the APA who are always looking over your shoulder to see who else is there, you’ve probably received some strong micromessages about your importance.

The messages are not neutral; they contain an assessment of your importance and the quality of what you have to say.  They are encouraging or discouraging, and they can help you flourish in an environment or they can degrade both your mood and your work.

I would not be surprised if many of us have been told that these small details in our environment are not important.  “Just ignore them and go ahead and do your own work.”  I haven’t read enough of the book (linked to above) to say what the author’s reaction to this is, but I think that that is desperate advice.  These messages can impact us on a visceral level.  Perhaps like pervasive bad smells, you can work despite them, but that does not make them and their capacity for making you feel slightly sick go away.

We can ‘habituate to smells’ and no longer notice them.  I’m not at all sure that getting habituated to a negative environment is the same.  In any case, those who have a positive environment are given a strong advantage over those who do not.

What do you think?

16 thoughts on “Micromessaging

  1. Something has been bothering me for the last couple months: I’m a first year graduate student and I’ve noticed that some of my male professors don’t make eye contact with me in class. It’s more noticeable in smaller seminars. At first, I really thought I was being paranoid, but in one of my classes, I’ve switched seats so that I’m now sitting on the side of the room, and the professor rarely looks toward me, though he scans the rest of the class. I’m not sure what to make of it. Maybe they just feel uncomfortable and are worried about making too much eye contact with women. I find it (non-eye contact) really distracting though.

  2. Grad Student, you have described the problem really well. We don’t know what is going on, and it may be different for different profs. It might be a relatively surface ineptitude or something deeper. The problem is that you have to deal with something that is in effect a systematic failure to recognize you.

    I wish I had a good answer. One thing I might try to do is to get some of the female grad students together to discuss your experiences with – to put it very bluntly – the social failures of the faculty.

    In the meantime, I think Sally Haslanger was absolutely right to draw our attention to this dimension. You are definitely not alone. And it is a significant negative that falls disproportionately on female students and faculty.

    Let me again say that this might be a good time to try to see if the women in the department would like to get together over pizza once a week, or every other week, or monthly, just to talk about these things. This post or the book might even be a starting point. Recognition of a problem is not a solution, but shared recognition can help.

  3. 1) That this is extremely significant strikes me as obvious but then, since i work on Implicit Bias, I’ve thought about this a lot already. For those of us (white, heterosexual male etc etc) etc not experiencing these micromessages by being on the receiving end, the most noticeable things is who gets interrupted.

    2) That Grad Student includes a comparison (i.e. the professor does make eye contact with other students) is VERY important I think as many philosophers (it is a cliche and stereotype but I do believe it is true) have pretty terrible interpersonal skills and probably makes less eye contact in general compared to laypersons. To be completely clear: I’m not questioning the conclusion (which i agree with), I’m just saying that we should continue to be careful that we are comparing micromessaging to that received by our peers and not to that normally found in laypersons.

    3) This reminded me of Samantha Brennan’s excellent paper ‘Feminist Ethics and Everyday Inequalities’ which is about micro stuff

  4. Thanks Anne, that’s a good idea.

    I think one thing that’s very frustrating about this, is that now that I’ve noticed it, I sort of can’t help but continue to notice it when it happens. And then I’m thinking about it in seminar, when I ought to be completely focused on what we’re learning. And then I worry more about whether or not this divided attention might result in my actually seeming less competent because I’m distracted. And then I’m more distracted, worrying about being distracted!

  5. Grad student, your description reminds me of what is sometimes thought to be going on with stereotype threat. There is some work on what can be done to reduce the effects of stereotype threat, and you might consider trying that.

    Following on that research, I think it might help if you wrote a list of the values, goals and talents you bring to grad work in philosophy. (If you are not generous in your judgment of yourself, you might skip “talents,” though after all you got into grad school.) You could pick one and write a bit about it. You could sometimes remind yourself of the list, and maybe write a bit about another item on the list.

    One thing that has helped me a lot is to focus on how much we do not understand others. Another thing I sometimes very uncharitably think about is the problems in their own lives these people must have. The idea here is really to reduce their impact on you; these are fallible human beings who may have all sorts of personal problems that they bring into professional life with them. They are in the wrong here, and it is you who has the power of not being in the wrong. You might wonder whether other students are being affected by these people in other adverse ways. Or you could try to cultivate a Bhuddist compassion for people who can’t even cope with a female student, for God’s sake!

  6. I like the idea about Bhuddist compassion, I’m going to try that!

    Peter, I wonder if you have any advice on how to convince my boyfriend (a white heterosexual male) that I’m not just being paranoid when I feel that I’m treated differently by both other (male) grad students and professors because I’m a woman. When I put my impressions into words, they really sound like paranoia, even to me.

  7. Mirja, Sally Haslanger noted at the meeting that these micromessages are not things one can complain about because (I think she said) one can seem petty and even paranoid. You are not alone.

    The book linked to in the post is not especially about women. If your boyfriend is unaware of this dimension of communication, he really should become aware, because they are an important part of social interchanges. So you can consider separating the question of the existence of this kind of messaging from the question of your interpretations. I will be interested to hear what Peter thinks about the question of interpretation, but you could refer your boyfriend to What is it like to be a women in philosophy, or to Brennan’s paper mentioned above.

  8. Thanks Anne! Actually I haven’t read Brennan’s paper, I should do that.

    To be honest, after more than four years in the program, I’m still not confindent that some grad students and male professors tend to underestimate female students. That’s my impression, but who knows. I think it’s a very good idea to separate the question of the existence of micromessaging (and stereotype threat, etc.) from the question of whether my impressions are correct.

  9. Hi folks,

    Let me preface my comments by saying that I am NOT an expert on such things and I defer both to those with more knowledge of the data (Virginia Valian is great and has in addition to her book a ton of resources on the web) and also to those here who have been have been having such conversations with skeptical people for years.


    1) like AnnejJacobson said, I would divorce the conversation (temporarily!) from your particular situation. Perhaps even temporarily divorce it from gender. Some people are more open to such ideas regarding race and then this creates a wedge where you can start to talk about the same thing but with gender.

    2) Emphasis how it is all unconscious and so it is not a question of blame. Also helps if you can say what you want without use of the word ‘sexism.’ This is purely pragmatic and is, of course, an empirical bet (that this is more productive) that I may be wrong about. (Jules Holroyd will have some interesting discussion of this coming out at some point hopefully!).

    3) Ask him to have a look here http://jerrykang.net/2011/03/13/getting-up-to-speed-on-implicit-bias/ Once you have a basic idea about Implicit Bias, stuff like micromessaging really doesn’t surprise you.

    4) You just mentioned men but you might also want to consider the behavior of some of your female peers/professors. Anyway for the purposes of persuasion, even if Implicit Gender Bias isn’t equally shared between the gender, there are plenty of women who are implicitly biased against women and so for pragmatic purposes of getting people on side, I just talk as if IB is split evenly between the genders.

    I’m not sure it’s false so it’s not a lie per se, also even if it was a lie it would be quite an innocent one.

    hope that helps some. Like I said though, I’ll defer to many of the others here on this as it is a question of activism and I have precious little experience of that.

    5) I would have him watch who gets interrupted in conversation. He may discover (as I did) that he does this himself but probably best not to say or imply this in advance.


    “I will be interested to hear what Peter thinks about the question of interpretation”

    Sorry, I’ve reread the thread and I’m afraid that I’m not sure what you are referring to. Whose interpretation and of what?

  10. Also just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you! jk ;)

    In all seriousness, though, my money says you’re not paranoid and rather just perceiving what is going on :)

  11. Peter, I meant what you would say that she could offer as a defense of her interpretation. I think the response “well, a lot of other women see it this way” is at least some support.

    It can be very hard to tell in grad school unless the bias is pretty stark. A lot of women don’t really get the existence of the bias until they get near tenure. I think there are a number of factors behind this, from low self-esteem to not realizing that a young women may be attractive and get attention for all sorts of reasons that don’t really mean she is valued as a thinker. I should say that I’m really only guessing at the causes.

  12. Thanks Peter for your thoughtful comments! I just listened to the interview with Brennan and I found it very interesting. I will come back to this post whenever I have slots to read what’s recommended on it.

    Also, I completely agree with 2), I never took it as a question of blame. I honestly think that the men around me (and most in the profession) do not want to discriminate against female academics. So you are right, I should not assume that only the men around me may be sending those “micromessages”. Actually, I have believed for a long time that it may very well be that women are just as biased against women as men are. So I was being inconsistent there, thanks for making me notice! For some reason, all the “micromessages” I registered involved male academics, and I failed to notice that this may have been due to a variety of factors.

    I will try the “interrupted in conversation” experiment, I regret to say I may do this myself!

    Thanks for this site, by the way!

  13. @ AnneJJacobson

    thanks for the clarification :)

    I agree that the fact a lot of other women perceive it offers some support.

    For me, the argument I tend to give in these cases is that given what we know about the Science (implicit bias, micromessaging etc) and the nature of Philosophy (gendered masculine subject with a massive over-representation of men over a long period of time) it would be much stranger if her department was entirely devoid of such behavior! One might put it a bit more strongly and say that the burden of proof is much heavier with those who would claim that this particular department constitutes an exception to the rule.

    Analogously, Let’s say we have good evidence that a certain sort of power plant (‘X plants’) usually produce a type of fume that makes it hard for people to breathe and local people near one of these stations report finding it hard to breathe. The world would, given what we know about the science, be a stranger place if there were no fumes in this area and so the burden of proof is heavier with those who would say that plant hasn’t produced any fumes.

    It’s late and I’m tired so that analogy is probably flawed but that’s my best attempt :) Perhaps others will improve on it.

    @ Mirja

    There is a nice story somewhere from Virginia Valian about the first time she started tallying who got interrupted in departmental meetings. She mentioned it and, although they disagreed it was going on, she noticed that people interrupted women less from then on.

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