Women, Excellence, and Competition

Susan Chira has an article at the NYT about women’s experience in business, the possible connection to barriers in politics, and what some of those structural barriers to high status positions seem to be.

“Why Women Aren’t C.E.O.s, According to Women Who Almost Were: It’s not a pipeline problem. It’s about loneliness, competition and deeply rooted barriers.”

“In recounting their experiences, some women were philosophical; several swung between barely suppressed fury and bouts of self-blame. “

The article also contains what might be the crowning glory of Dunning-Kruger anecdotes:

“Many women, accomplished as they are, don’t feel the same sense of innate confidence as their male peers. Gerri Elliott, a former senior executive at Juniper Networks (who said she did not personally encounter bias), recounts a story related by a colleague: A presenter asked a group of men and women whether anyone had expertise in breast-feeding. A man raised his hand. He had watched his wife for three months. The women in the crowd, mothers among them, didn’t come forward as experts.”

Speaking of “barely suppressed fury” [that is partially meant in jest, but emphasis on partially] this quote reminded me that I could list off-hand about 3-5 men I personally know–who know what I do for a living–who, in arguing with me about the thing that I have been studying for near a decade (gender stereotypes and bias), have treated me as if I were no more expert than them. One of them pointed out that he had recently read an op-ed piece about race and gender, and thus, I needed to explain to him why my definitions of racism and sexism weren’t simply mistaken or confused. That was the starting point of the conversation: explain to me why I shouldn’t think that you are totally ignorant of the basics of the thing you study, because this newspaper article I read contradicts what you just said.

Just imagine, for a moment, someone saying that to a man who’s a physicist. Explain to me why you know anything about quantum mechanics because your definition doesn’t match how an article I read on my phone talked about it.

Speaking of physics, another man I personally knew insisted that I completely misunderstood how science works, even when I told him that was a main area I had studied. I told him I had learned that the story we’re often told about science is over simplified and inaccurate. Despite that, he insisted that good scientists never make mistakes, and the reason they’re so good is because they’re never wrong about their theories. I told him that Einstein was dead wrong about an important metaphysical debate regarding quantum theory. I told him that, furthermore, Einstein made predictions that we only just now demonstrated were correct. Good scientists have to guess sometimes. And sometimes great scientists are wrong.

That man looked me in the eyes and, never blinking, told me I was wrong. He cited no evidence or counter-argument. But he said it with such certainty, with a tone of such obviousness and scorn, I paused for a moment and ran over what I said in my head again, to make sure I hadn’t somehow misspoken or said something unclear or ambiguous.

I think these behaviors are in part fueled by an attitude that doesn’t view conversation as an opportunity for mutual learning but instead an opportunity for point scoring. They’re also partly fueled, I think, by a sense of shame in potentially ‘getting beaten by a girl.’ They might also be due to another attitude I have seen, in arenas ranging from department lounges to hobby shops to online gaming groups to sports. It’s described by a woman in the article as the following:

“Those men think, ‘If I kick her, she’s not going to kick back, but the men will. So I’ll go after her.”

I have watched women who have been scolded, mocked, ‘corrected’, mansplained, thrown under the bus, and back-stabbed, turn the other cheek and continue to be team players. They went high when men went low. Part of that may be due to the following, as Ellen Kullman describes it:

“I think we tend to be brought up thinking that life’s fair, that you thrive and deliver, and the rest will take care of itself.”

As we have been recently reminded, it’s naive to “expect the battle to be fair. A battle will never be fair.”  (This might be an attitude held more commonly by otherwise-privileged women.)

Part of the issue might be that women in these situations don’t think they are (or should be) in a zero-sum, competitive battle. And just to be clear, it’s not that women aren’t interested in competition ever. Just ask me about how much time I’ve sunk into learning intricate gaming systems in order to demonstrate that I can achieve a set of arbitrary goals better than others can. #GamingLife