Saturday, July 14, 2012

I am opening a can of worms.

The internets have gotten me thinking.

So if you're having a lazy layabout weekend, I thought I'd get you thinking, too.

First, read this. It discusses a study by a couple of psychologists researching a psychological phenomenon they term the "stereotype threat."

It's an NPR fluff piece with an angle, not the actual scientific study itself. NPR's angle is that this stereotype threat is one of (perhaps the major) factor behind the dearth of women in mathematics/science careers.

I know several women in precisely those fields (including one working in the National Security Administration's cybercrimes division), but they're roughly my age, so I can't exactly speak to whether or not they'll stick it out in those careers. That's one of the article's points--women start out in those fields, doing well, with lots of academic credentials, but end up quitting sooner and advancing less than their male colleagues.

Keep in mind, too, that one of those women specifically credits attending an all-girl high school for her own success in mathematics, reinforcing the stereotype threat theory.

So in other words, for stereotypes to stop being true, we need to stop talking about them all the time. If you never know there's a stereotype that girls are bad at math, you'll never unconsciously self-fulfill that prophecy. Maybe?

Something to think about, since current feminist methods promote pointing out every little disparity all the time until you can't even enjoy a movie without worrying if it passes the Bechdel test or read a book without worrying about its conflicting feminist messages.

Yet complaining about these stereotypes may in some way perpetuate them, exactly the opposite of what we're trying to accomplish (not that I think we should sit down and shut up like good little housewives, either; it's just that the situation is a lot more complex and multi-faceted--and harder to fix--than we'd like to think).

Got all that?

Ok then. Now read this thoughtful post by Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy.

What do you think?

I think that the stereotype threat is the most compelling theory I've heard for discrepancies of that kind. But. It's certainly not the whole story (it never is, is it?).

Women (and men) of a certain generation worked very hard to ensure that the women of our generation had the opportunity to work in scientific fields (and business ones, and political ones, etc. etc.).

And it must be excruciatingly frustrating to see women of my generation (and the one between, to which Anne belongs) not fulfilling their dreams of total parity (in terms of numbers, prestige, pay, usw.) in the workplace.

So they look for an outside explanation. If laboratories and Senate floors are not fifty/fifty men/women, there must be some outside force preventing women from holding those positions. After all, in their day, an outside force was to blame. That's what the women of that generation know how to fight--entrenched societal norms and stereotypes. Nothing but those sorts of outside forces could keep them from fulfilling their own dreams, and they assume that younger women have the same dreams and thus the same impediments to those dreams.

That's not necessarily the case. I'm not saying a certain amount of stereotyping and pressure don't exist. Like I said, I think it's likely that the stereotype threat, as a psychological phenomenon, is real.

But. I also think that women of my and Anne's generation have different dreams, on the whole (see, there I am stereotyping, of course), than did the women of the previous generation. It's not that outside forces are keeping us from jobs as scientists or politicians or whatever. It's that we don't necessarily dream of being scientists and politicians, or we dream of being them differently than did our predecessors.

Because, as I pointed out in my comment to Anne's post, this is not just a women's issue. It's a generational one. The men of our generations don't really want to be scientists and politicians in the old mold, either. Both men and women want more flexibility, more freedom. They're more concerned with happiness and personal fulfillment than getting ahead. They want to be successful in their careers, but on their own terms, in ways that mean that their successful careers don't define them.

The DDH doesn't just want to be an awesome lawyer, or to claw his way to a partnership at a prestigious firm. He wants to be a good husband and a good father and a man who pursues other interests, from video games to church leadership. And he's willing to work at a less prestigious (and, sadly for me, a less financially renumerative) lawyering job in order to have the time to be those other things.

Which is what Anne is doing.

Which is what my friend at the NSA plans to do, to stay home with her children once she and her husband have them, at least for a time, and pursue other interests (and her husband also works for the NSA, so it's going to look, on paper, exactly as if a man and a woman, same age, began working at the same workplace in roughly positions, and the woman "couldn't stick it out" and quit while the man keeps going).

Which is what I want to do.

Which is what thousands of other women and men in their twenties and thirties are doing because it's what they want to do.

It's not what every woman wants, of our generations or any other, and it's very important that women have the opportunity to be just as successful as men in any career they choose.

But when we choose not to stick with a career or to take a slower route to the top, it's not necessarily because of the insidious pressure of entrenched societal stereotypes. It's not a problem that can be rectified with more shows like Bones or movies like Brave, though I think we could use more of those, too.

Because it's not necessarily a problem at all.

So what do you think? Am I crazy?
What is your experience with and relationship to these issues?

1 comment:

  1. You're not crazy. Generalities can't speak for everyone, but I like the way we're trending, and I think you and your husband are spot-on. I, obviously, am fascinated by this discussion, and I'm looking forward to see how it continues to play out.

    Wishing your own family well as you head into a new season soon :)