20, Mar, 2018

Make History During Women’s History Month: Toss the Gender Stereotypes!

Marti Toss Gender Stereotypes

Women all over the world are making history. The #MeToo movement has elevated women’s voices as they stand up against sexual harassment in the workplace. Females of all ages are speaking up and speaking out on a number of issues, including equal pay, equal representation in leadership, elimination of gender bias, better prenatal and postnatal care, and justice for victims and survivors of gender-based violence.

Celebrate Women’s History Month by listening to what women are saying. We speak with music, science, art, literature, activism, advocacy, friendship, love, and justice. Women bring life into the world, not only biologically, but spiritually, emotionally, and socially. We do this creatively and ingeniously. And yet, in certain contexts, people are more likely to associate creativity with men rather than women, a bias based on male and female stereotypes. That’s what a 2015 paper by Devon Proudfoot, Aaron Kay, and Christy Koval at the Fuqua School of Business suggests. In several experiments, they discovered that “outside the box” creativity is “…more strongly associated with stereotypically masculine characteristics (e.g., daring and self-reliance) than with stereotypically feminine characteristics (e.g., cooperativeness and supportiveness).” 

In their series of studies, Proudfoot, Kay, and Koval also found that a man is credited with more creativity that a woman, even when their individual output is identical, and that men’s ideas are evaluated as more ingenious that women’s ideas. They also discovered that female executives are evaluated as less innovative than their male colleagues, and that when men engage in stereotypically male behavior (like independence and self-direction) others’ perception of them as creative increases. However, when women display the same behaviors, it does not enhance their perceived creativity. No wonder there still are so few women in top executive positions!  You can read their entire paper here.

Let’s banish the worn-out old gender stereotypes. It’s essential and beneficial for both women and men to be aware that sexism, with its biases, myths, and misconceptions, is still deeply entrenched in our institutions, society, attitudes, and beliefs. Science needs an overhaul as badly as business does. When we’re asked to imagine a clueless person who needs complex concepts to be broken down and simplified, the “someone” is often described as female — an elderly aunt, a grandmother, a mother, or even a barmaid. That’s actually a thing! The ability to explain a theory, research, etc., in terms so basic they can be written on a cocktail napkin is known as “Barmaid Physics.” Josie Glausiusz, a journalist in Israel who writes about science and the environment for magazines including Nature, National Geographic, and American Scholar, covers this brilliantly in a piece published in Scientific American today, March 20th:

Along with many other science journalists, I have encountered this stereotype time and again. We are advised to ask scientists to explain their research to “your granny,” “to your mother or a ninth-grader,” to “Aunt Gladys.” As Einstein supposedly said in innumerably repeated memes, “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” (The quote is “probably not by Einstein,” according to the Ultimate Quotable Einstein, published by Princeton University Press.) In another iteration often attributed to Ernest Rutherford, one doesn’t fully understand a phenomena, theory, concept, principle, or law, etc., completely, until one can explain it to a barmaid (or child), e.g. in simple words, or on a cocktail napkin. This is sometimes called “Barmaid Physics.”

The well-worn formula is a prime example of the subtle ways in which sexism pervades science in a manner so entrenched that it is difficult to recognize. We are never asked to explain science to “your dad” or “your granddad.” “‘Explain it like you would explain it to your middle-aged Uncle Bob,’ said no one ever,” notes Leah Fey, subject investigation analyst at PreScouter, Inc. The advice “assumes that “Mom” and “Grandma” are either stupid or uneducated—either way, are incapable of comprehending anything technical,” adds Jen Pinkowski, Senior Science Editor at Mental Floss. 
Take a moment to read Josie Glausiusz’ wonderful blog post here.

Throughout history, despite prejudice and sexism, females have triumphed, and will continue to do so. Hmmm…winning out against all odds? Hey, a heroic feat like that must take daring, self-reliance, independence and self-direction — “stereotypically male attributes” — to achieve. And let’s not forget to show some cooperativeness and supportiveness — “stereotypically female attributes,” toward women as we move forward. Women must fight to achieve each stage of progress, and must defend every triumph in order to sustain that hard-won progress for the generations that follow. Good thing we’re up to the task.

Fierce, Funny and Female Cover of BookIf you’d like to read my personal story of smashing female stereotypes, and get some laughs along the way, check out Fierce, Funny, and Female: A Journey Through Middle America, the Texas Oil Field, and Standup Comedy

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