Monday, August 29, 2011

Gender, power, and the subconscious

In “The Psyche on Automatic,” writer Craig Lambert profiles Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist who researches “how people perceive and categorize others.” Lambert focuses on two main areas of Cuddy’s research: first, how individuals perceive warmth and competence as ends of a spectrum, and second, physical postures and their relationship to perceived power. Each of these areas pertains to gender studies.

Cuddy’s first finding was that “people tend to see warmth and competence as inversely related. If there’s a surplus of one trait, they infer a deficit of the other.” This finding has negative repercussions for women. In Joan Williams’ book “Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It,” she points out that in eighteenth century Europe and nineteenth century America, a rearrangement of gender identities and stereotypes occurred. Whereas before, character traits associated with competition and cooperation were distributed evenly between the sexes, during this era men came to be assigned all the character traits associated with competition: ambition, authority, power, vigor, calculation, instrumentalism, logic, and single-mindedness. Women, by contrast, were assigned all the traits associated with cooperation: gentleness, sensitivity, expressivism, altruism, empathy, personalism, and tenderness.

Psychological studies suggest that men prefer "taking risks" while women prefer "working problems out completely"; whether these preferences are nature- or nurture-based is hotly contested. What is clear, however, is that the notion that "on average, women are more cooperative, nurturing, cautious and emotionally responsive" while "men tend to be more competitive assertive, reckless, and emotionally flat" persists to this day.

Considering Cuddy’s research in light of Williams’ book, this would seem to suggest that society encourages women to express “a surplus of warmth,” while simultaneously perceiving this warmth as an indicator of their lack of competence.

On the male end of things, men may be socially discouraged from "seeming warm," even to their own detriment. As Deborah Rhode notes in her article "The 'No-Problem' Problem: Feminist Challenges and Cultural Change," "whatever our progress in encouraging women to pursue traditional male roles, we have been less effective in encouraging men to assume traditional female ones." Cuddy's article states that when individuals assess strangers, they place significant weight on whether or not that stranger seems personally warm, so coming across as extremely cold/competent is not ultimately beneficial.
Interestingly, Cuddy notes that it is not the warm/incompetent woman who is most likely to experience sexual harassment. Rather, cold/competent women tend to be sexual harassment’s targets. Cuddy theorizes that this is a sort of “active harm” that men direct at a group that is threatening (successful women) – a way of “’putting [women] in their place,’ or even expelling them from the environment.”

It is consistent with domesticity’s allocation of character traits for competition to men and for cooperation to women that men consider cold/competent women the greatest threat to their “superior” status. A modern, feminist man or woman could use Cuddy’s research to break away from negative aspects of the status quo in two ways: first, by being aware of and challenging his or her own assumptions about the correlation between warmth and competence, and second, by attempting to manifest traits inconsistent with his or her gender’s historical “assignment.” That is, men can consciously pursue cooperative tactics in the workplace, while women can develop their competitive sides. Individual men and women all would surely benefit by finding a workplace approach that is sometimes competitive, sometimes cooperative.

Cuddy’s second finding was that nonverbal cues such as postures drive perceptions of competence. Postures that are expansive, open, and take up more space are associated with high power and dominance, while postures that are contractive and take up minimal space are associated with low power or being at the bottom of a social hierarchy.

Men are far more likely to assume expansive postures, while women are much more likely to cross their legs and arms, or to lean in – low-power positions. As with the warmth/competence spectrum, these subconscious but socially-learned patterns impact how individuals perceive women. When women sit in submissive postures, they are (perhaps unsurprisingly) perceived as submissive. Cuddy states that if female M.B.A.s (or lawyers) wish to be perceived as men’s equals, they should raise their chairs, and assume expansive postures during job interviews.

While this suggestion does impose a male norm upon women, it also seems good practical advice for getting past initial and deeply socially-rooted assumptions about sex and status. Men, too, can expand their posture repertoires by assuming more or less aggressive postures as is socially appropriate.

1 comment:

hanestagless said...

As a man, I was especially intrigued by your suggestion of increasing cooperation in the workplace. I have two quick thoughts on this. The first is that I believe there already is a shift in the work environment to increase cooperation within companies. Second, I would suggest that men's cooperation go beyond the workplace and into all areas (though I understand that the workplace is likely the first place this may displayed).

1. Based on my experience, I believe work places have begun to emphasize cooperative behavior. As a disclaimer, I only have anecdotal evidence of this. I worked in finance for five years. During this time, my managers emphasized team building activities, e.g. social events or group lunches. Also, when assigning tasks, they would often do so in small groups of two or three. Throughout the industry, companies emphasized their respective cooperative cultures, and were always measuring me as to how I would fit in to that culture. Essentially, they wanted to know whether they could work with me, regardless of my actual performance. I gathered that the ability to cooperate and get along trumped anything else.

Yet, the industry is still slow to shift. Competition (and probably rightfully so) still strongly exists. Companies provide incentives for performance, whether it be individual or group, in the form of bonuses. Certain departments have been slower to shift to a more cooperative model. Sales and trading are the traditional areas where competition is used to drive performance. Other departments like asset management and investment banking have been better in recognizing that cooperative groups are advantageous.

I'm greatly curious to see how many women work in the respective departments. There are an increasing number of women who are entering the finance industry, but I wonder if that distribution is uniform.

Also, perhaps the shift from a competitive model to a cooperative one is partly fueling the increased hiring of women in finance. Either subconsciously or knowingly, hiring managers are recognizing that aggressiveness isn't the asset it used to be and are more willing to hire women. (That this thought process is even going on is the tragedy that hopefully feminism will abolish).

2. I couldn't help but notice that your example of increasing male cooperation involved the workplace. Again, I recognize that that's one area where great strides need to be made. Especially since the workplace is where the door is most often closed to women.

But, I believe men should use Cuddy's research beyond just the work place. Hopefully, men will start to see how cooperation is necessary and beneficial in all areas. This may further breakdown the binary gender roles that exist at work and at home. Hopefully, men would start to see that raising children or upkeep of the house is a cooperative effort. With that increased cooperation in the home, men could increasingly take on traditionally female roles, as Deborah Rhode suggests is needed.