Thursday, August 20, 2009

Status Expectations and Gender

This is a repost of something I wrote for a women-only mailing list so that I can point to it publicly. Many workplace and other community issues between genders may be related to Status Expectations on interactions. Here I try to summarize some current sociological theory on gender:

Subconscious beliefs about status affect our expectations when we interact:
*Lower status people are expected to be less competent than higher
status people, by default.
*Lower status people are viewed as having less "legitimate" claims to authority.
* Finally, the higher status person is expected to act authoritative
(decisive, proactive) and the lower status person is expected to act
"communally" (working to ease social relations, inclusive, considerate
of others, reactive, etc)

When two people interact in a situation, these expectation color our
perceptions and interactions, so, for example, the higher status
person is given "the benefit of the doubt" and their skills,
behavior, outcomes are judged less harshly than the lower status
person. The lower status person's skills are judged more harshly
(mistakes are evidence of their lower competence, while successes are
downplayed - is this sounding familiar to anyone?), and any attempt by
the lower status person to act authoritative is viewed as an
illegitimate power play. The lower status person doesn't have "the
right" to act authoritative.

Women are lower status than men (in contemporary US society, and in
many/most contemporary societies.) While education and experience can
increase our perceived status regarding competence, we are still
viewed as not having "legitimate" claim to authority. In other words,
women can be competent, but we still have to "be nice" otherwise,
we're violating what it means to be a woman (in contemporary US
society, "being a woman" includes "being nice".) Women are perceived
(rightly or wrongly) as having higher social skills than men, we are
held to higher standards on social skills than men (because we are
lower status).

Unfortunately, (white) women were socialized with the same status
expectations as men, so we hold these same expectations when we walk
into a situation. (There is some evidence that African American women
have different status expectations when interacting within a group of
African Americans - but share the hegemonic beliefs when interacting
in mixed racial groups.) We assume the man is more competent by
default (unless we have some reason to believe otherwise, such as
higher education), and we assume the man will be in charge (again,
unless we walk in with a higher "rank".)

snip of a description on the mailing list of being seen as "difficult"

This is the problem of how the lower status person is supposed to get
ahead - they're perceived as less authoritative, so they don't get
promoted to positions of authority, but if they act authoritative,
they are violating norms, and are not promoted because of their
"inappropriate behavior". (Yes - it is a double standard and a serious
catch22.) Women fall afoul of this regularly (the glass ceiling is
partly based on this effect.)

Women who *do* get ahead, often are the ones who were able to smooth
ruffled feathers by "being helpful" and playing on their social skills
strengths, to get the men to accept them as peers. At that point, they
are sometimes able to act more authoritatively without it being viewed
as "illegitimate". It's hard to accept this, though, as not just
continuing the stereotypes and reinforcing them. Either way, it's an
ugly tangled knot. Do we act "nice" to get along and perpetuate the
stereotypes? or do we act "authoritative" to get ahead, and run the
risk of being stuck in a position where we're not allowed to advance
because we're viewed as "too bitchy"? Ugh.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

On trust and diversity

First read The Terrible Bargain
Then read Just below my skin

Everyone should read those - both of them. Because they give two different perspectives on what it's like to live in a world defined as heterosexual male, able-bodied, neurotypical, with most everything else a "diversity issue". What's funny for me is, I don't feel like I "fit" even in this sort of story. And I want to give my perspective because it falls somewhere in here - just different enough to, I hope, spur people to keep thinking.

I have never experienced the sense of fear and distrust portrayed in the Terrible Bargain about males. Primarily, I think, because I'm NOT neurotypical, and my enculturation or socialization or whatever you call it, didn't really take. I do remember people (especially my mother) talking to me about my interactions with others, especially males, and I suspect, trying to convince me that I was doing things that might be dangerous somehow. But, honestly, I've rarely had trouble from men, as a woman. I have had occasions where there was overt sexism - the principal at my junior high who was convinced that "wargaming is for boys", the two men who tried to threaten me (one carrying a baseball bat) at night at a busstop, being accused of being a "bitch" on occasion (which I mostly found amusing) I'm not immune to harrassment. But I am, I guess, mostly oblivious. I have never really felt a sense of exclusion or being dismissed for being female when pursuing my interests - whether those were RPGs, firearms, electronics, or computers (among others). And I have never felt the sense of generalized mistrust of males that is described in The Terrible Bargain.

I have , otoh, experienced that sense of mistrust - not about males -but more often about women, and mostly, female neurotypicals. (I was, for example, terrified before my first Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, but had no fears of walking into OSCON, or any "mixed" conference.)

You see - I don't *get* cultural norms. I have a form of what's best described as "culture blindness" - I don't just pick up the "unspoken rules" of behavior. I don't think the same way that "everyone" seems to. I keep learning more about the ways I think differently, by reading and asking and learning. But the biggest problem I've had in life is with neurotypical assumptions (especially from women) of what I "should" just "know". When I do something that ticks someone off and they respond to my query of "what did I do wrong" with "if you have to ask... " then I just can't learn anything about how to fix it. Worse is when they simply decide that I'm deliberately intending to be rude or whatever, because of my phrasing, when I had no idea that it would be interpreted that way, and don't ever bother to *tell* me or *explain* to me that it's taken that way. I've fallen afoul of that sort of thing numerous times in my life.

It's *NOT* that I don't care. It's that my perception of "norms" or of "courteous behavior" or "politeness" or whatever you want to call it is DIFFERENT because of my different brain. Unfortunately, since I grew up in the Midwest of the US, and am white and female, I'm *assumed* to be somehow empathetic and better at socializing and all sorts of things that - I just am not. So when I violate those norms, it's assumed I'm doing it *on purpose*.

When I'm with women, I get this more than with men. Because with men, *generally* (not always but more often than with women) if I *ask* about why they're acting pissed, they'll tell me. Or if I upset them, they'll challenge me on my behavior - and I get to find out what I did wrong - at the time, so that I can avoid it in the future! If they never tell me, I don't know!

I treasure the people in my life who have taken time to explain to me when I've done something that offended them. The African American woman who explained to me that the term "buckwheat" (which I'd been using for my son for a couple of years at that point) was racist, or the person who explained to me why "Indian giver" is a slur. Thank you to those of you who have taken the time to explain to me so that I can avoid unintentionally offending others.

So - what's it like in my world?

What if you had to move as an adult to an alien culture that just happens to speak your same language, but with different meanings for many of the words, with different ways of "being polite". What if, because you happened to speak the "same" language, you are assumed to just know the cultural norms - for example, the holidays, the rules of the road, the little rules of interaction, that are just different enough from your own culture so that you get tripped up regularly. And what if, instead of explaining patiently to you what you did and how to avoid it in the future, everyone assumed you were tripping up on purpose because "everyone knows that" and anyone who does it "wrong" is deliberately being a troll. How comfortable would you feel in that society?

Welcome to what it feels like to live in neurotypical society.

So yeah - I tend to be, I think, more tolerant of those who have sincere questions about things like "disability 101" and "feminism 101" because frankly, most folks don't grok "neurodiversity 101". While I understand being tired of explaining what it's like to be a woman in a man's society, I perhaps have less sympathy than I might if I were neurotypical - because I am different in an invisible way. Because the neurotypical has no idea how many assumptions they are making about everyone - and when they refuse to explain in response to an honest query - they're doing *no one* any good.

No - you don't have to *personally* explain every single thing in great gory detail to every single person. But please provide pointers and a brief, clear explanation: "when you said x, I felt y, because z" and "you can get more info about this at url..." If that's too much to ask, then you have insufficient tolerance, imho, for the neurodiverse who actually *need* that explanation or for those who are simply new to your form of diversity and don't know your cultural assumptions.

Maybe this makes me a bad "ally" for whatever 'ism' you're promoting. Could be. Or, it could be a plea for everyone to please assume the best of everyone's intentions, particularly when we're *asking* for help in understanding. Because there's too much out there for *any* of us to learn on our own. The more you explain (or point to explanations) that help us all understand better why you feel the way you do and react the way you do, the better off we *all* are, and the easier time we *all* have to avoid tripping over landmines that we were unaware of.

So - thanks to the posters of The Terrible Bargain and Just Below My Skin. It *helps* to read these perspectives. Thank you for taking the time to help others understand. Including me.

Now, where'd I leave that asbestos long-underwear...

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

On Python and diversity

After Kirrily's OSCON Keynote, several of us had some great hall discussions and lunch discussions on the topic of women in opensource. As a result of the discussion, Aahz, a fellow pythonista, posted a call for diversity and created a new list for Python users to discuss improving diversity in the Python community.

So far, we've had a great discussion - lots of respectful participation from people of varying viewpoints. I'm so proud to belong to a community that cares about this topic (not just women in opensource, but all forms of diversity) and is taking steps to address it. I've always loved the Python community for its welcoming, friendly, accessible nature. I am also aware that, like most Open Source projects, (and indeed, the tech field in general) there is room for improvement in the diversity of our membership, committers, and officers.

If you're interested in Python and want in on the discussion, the new list is at

Join us in working to make the Python community even better than it already is!