Delusions of Gender: more on work cultures

[This is the 3rd of a series of posts discussing the book ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine]

In the previous post, I highlighted what I’ve learned around work cultures, gender, and belonging. Highly gendered work cultures tend to be a problem for people who don’t identify with the dominant stereotype. Not fitting in, apparently, can even affect a person’s interest in the very content of the work, something that seems like perhaps it should be intrinsic and not subject to social forces.

If this is really true, it suggests that interest and motivation are somewhat arbitrary. When we have a developed passion, we might think we just ‘inherently’ love solving equations or holding forth in a courtroom or whatever it is, but that’s because we don’t readily see the part this activity has played in shaping our identity, in our becoming who we want to be (in reference, of course, to the culture around us); we don’t see the extent to which social rewards have nurtured our growing interest.

(Now that I think of it, I did realise recently that my guitar interests can only be explained by a gender-related sense of ‘fit’. I’m gradually cottoning on to this. Very gradually… 🙂 )

But why are work cultures the way they are? Are they intimately tied to the nature of the work, or is the dominant culture of a work area also somewhat arbitrary, dependent to a large degree on the luck of history?

Work-area culture can certainly change, sometimes quite dramatically. One study Cordelia Fine describes looked at the effect of a change in the admissions policy for computer science degrees at one particular university, where the requirement for extensive prior experience in programming was dropped. This changed the dominant culture of the student cohort almost overnight, and also changed the self-perception and self-expression of the more senior students who had been selected with the old criteria:

“… as the researchers suggest, the years spent in an increasingly gender-equal environment ‘had shaped their image of themselves. We might also speculate that such a transitional culture gave the men “permission” to explore their nongeeky characteristics’.”

The association between a work area and gender also varies geographically:

“… across countries, over and above the effect of consciously reported stereotypes, the more strongly males are implicitly associated with science and females with liberal arts, the greater boys’ advantage in science and maths in the eighth grade. (In some countries, it’s worth saying, girls outscore boys.)”

I think the content of a work area can certainly play a part in determining its gender balance – in so far as it interacts with notions about gender in the wider culture. When women started to enter the workplace, they probably tended to choose (or be most accepted in) work for which the required skills overlapped with their female self-identity and its expression in British culture – caring, nurturing, supportive, or otherwise people-oriented roles, such as nursing or secretarial jobs. Meanwhile men have retained a monopoly in areas that don’t seem a natural fit for a feminine personality – such as quantum physics, or economics, or things that tend to be prestigious or competitive.

However, I think that in most work areas, there is no one ‘type’ of person who would do the work well, or best. We tend to take the dominant culture of a workplace to be representative of the traits needed to do well at the work, or to ‘belong’ in the work area, and that is often a mistake; it is not as black-and-white as that. The “luck of history” is surely a factor in the dominant culture – and history has played out differently in different places. I can imagine that in some other countries, software development has become a career in which the more feminine ‘pro-social’ and ‘supportive’ attributes are emphasised, for example.

A more diverse set of skills and approaches, I would say, would do a world of good for many work areas whose cultures are entrenched in problematic and exaggerated aspects of gender. Most work types (and human problem-solving endeavours in general) probably stand to benefit from having a reasonably diverse workforce. But diversity cannot mean assimilating the occasional token woman/man/person of colour into the dominant culture. We need to be open to our work cultures changing.

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