Delusions of Gender: careers and ‘belonging’

[This is the 2nd of a series of posts discussing the book ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine]

The previous post focussed on the power of gender as a social identity in influencing and organising our behaviour. Perhaps not surprisingly, it also influences our sense of belonging in a given social environment. Experiments have apparently shown that even in the very short term, subtle messages received about the genderedness of a career path – through the gender balance of professionals featured in an informational video, or even the culture of a workplace as implied by its interior design – can affect people’s sense of whether they belong in it.

This fits well with a psychology lecture I attended a while ago, in which studies were described that show very clearly that the experience of “worklife balance” is well-predicted by whether we feel like we fit in at work, whether we feel like ourselves at work. If we don’t, then long working hours are likely to feel like a huge personal sacrifice. Gender-related norms were highlighted in the lecture as a big factor in “fitting in”. It’s not actually about gender per se, but about being able to feel that there are people like you around, thriving in the job; whether the individuals identified with are male or female doesn’t matter. It’s just that, so often, work cultures and work social environments are highly gendered and people can seem almost like caricatures of the dominant sex. (Even some of those who are of the opposite sex!)

Studies reported in Cordelia Fine’s book further develop this picture: apparently, the experience of ‘lack of fit’ is also what drives lack of interest in certain degree subjects or career paths.

The idea that ‘not fitting in’ not only makes you less happy but can actually make you less interested in the content of a subject of study or work area, for some reason, was quite revelatory to me. I spent my mid- to late-twenties scratching my head trying to understand interest, or ‘passion’, since I found it so elusive. I figured it had something to do with confidence; I couldn’t figure out which came first, a lack of confidence or a lack of interest – or for that matter, why confidence seemed so hard to come by. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that both could actually be a result of just not feeling I fitted in.

I keenly remember my struggles with gendered self-expression during my physics degree, my struggles against the experience of feeling “too feminine” for physics and the need to convince myself that wearing makeup and gushing over the prettiness of crystals forming in an experiment did not mean I was doomed to failure just because nobody else was doing that. (Indeed, I achieved a first!) I didn’t make a single real friendship with a classmate in those four years. I got used to being lonely.

Little did I know just how big the struggle was going to be in the long term, and the unconscious extent to which it would affect my motivation and confidence. ‘Lack of fit’ makes perfect sense of the otherwise maddeningly inexplicable struggles I’ve had in these areas – motivation and confidence – in the face of objectively good performance.

This quotation from the book could be the story of my life:

“With horrible irony, the harder women try to succeed in quantitative domains, the greater the mental obstacles become, for several reasons. Stereotype threat [an effect where stress and anxiety is created by having to perform against a low expectation generated by a stereotype] hits hardest those who actually care about their maths skills and how they do on tests, and thus have the most to lose by doing badly, compared with women who don’t much identify with maths. Also, the more difficult and nonroutine the work, the more vulnerable its performance will be to the sapping of working memory [caused by the stress], and possibly the switch to a more cautious problem-solving strategy. There is also the problem that, as she proceeds up the career ladder, the mathematically minded woman will become increasingly outnumbered by men. … This can compound her problem in more than one way. Her sex will become more and more salient, which in itself can trigger stereotype threat processes. One study even found that the more men there are taking a maths test in the same room as a solo woman, the lower women’s performance becomes. And, surrounded by men, she herself may come to grudgingly believe that women are indeed naturally inferior in maths…

“As our mathematical woman moves up the ranks, she will also progressively lose one very effective protection against stereotype threat: a female role model to look up to. People’s self-evaluations, aspirations and performance are all enhanced by encountering the success of similar role models – and the more similar, the better.”

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