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.


Folletto Malefico said...

I was wondering... do you know the book "The Sexual Paradox" by Susan Pinker?

Anna Martelli Ravenscroft said...

I've not read it.