By Antonia Sudkaemper
“You had some solid arguments (and some less solid), I think you did quite well by staying rational, my compliments.”
Now, this was one of the concluding remarks of one of the commenters on the original article, it was posted after I had carefully explained and referenced my viewpoint, in a similar fashion to my previous articles here.
I am finding this “compliment” rather inappropriate and offensive for several reasons. First of all, it is propagating gender stereotypes. The commentator was clearly surprised at the fact that I, as a woman, managed to stay rational in a heated discussion. The stereotypical female is described to be warm and caring, but—as opposed to men—not rational or assertive. I am frequently asked why these gender stereotypes are problematic; being warm and caring is not a bad thing, after all. The issue arises when descriptive stereotypes become prescriptive and women (and men, for that matter) are expected to act (or not to act) in a certain way. Consequently, an assertive and rational woman is disliked and is socially punished for violating stereotypes. This is specifically problematic in the context of work, as the stereotypes of women and the stereotype of bosses do not accord. Ultimately, an aspiring woman faces a Catch-22 situation. She could appear warm and caring, which would result in being liked but would also result in being perceived as incompetent. Alternatively, she could present herself as rational and assertive, which is congruent with the boss stereotype, but as a woman she will then be liked less and will likely face social repercussions. It is easy to imagine how neither option results in optimal career outcomes. Questioning and refusing to embrace gender stereotypes is, therefore, a vital step in achieving equal opportunities for women at the workplace.
The second thing that bothered me about the comment was the condescending nature of complimenting me for bringing forward (some!) solid arguments on a topic that I spend a considerable amount of time on every day, and that I am being paid to write about. Whilst I am aware that the person genuinely meant to compliment me, the statement also implies that despite lacking expertise in the field and despite lacking experience as a woman, he would still know enough about the topic to be capable of judging my argumentation. This belief seems to stem from an inherent assumption that as a man he somehow knows better. This kind of sexism is of a less blatant nature than the simple act of dismissing a woman’s opinion. The term “benevolent sexism” has been coined to describe behaviour towards women that appear positive but are actually detrimental to gender equality. Regarding women as irrational and vulnerable beings that need to be protected and helped might be based on good intentions, but—for reasons outlined above—is just as harmful to women’s careers as blatantly excluding them from the workplace.
At last, let’s conclude this series of blog articles. When I initially posted the article stating that men should be more involved in achieving gender equality I did not expect any response, not to mention the extensive and passionate responses that I received. While I cannot deny that the inadvertently initiated discourse elicited a variety of negative emotions ranging from disbelief and anger to disappointment, I by no means regret having shared the article. Engaging in discussions regarding this extremely relevant topic is crucial; being open to participate in discourse is a first step in the right direction, and I am happy to have facilitated such vital discourse. It, furthermore, confirmed my motivation to research gender politics at the workplace since evidently it is still very much needed. If you would like to read more about the topic in the future, please visit my homepage http://www.antoniasudkaemper.com.
- Barreto, M., & Ellemers, N. (2005). The burden of benevolent sexism: how it contributes to the maintenance of gender inequalities.
- Rudman, L. A., & Glick, P. (2001). Prescriptive gender stereotypes and backlash toward agentic women.
Antonia Sudkaemper is a PhD student at the university of Exeter. Her research focuses on gender equality. You can learn more about Antonia on her website, www.antoniasudkaemper.com , or by following her on twitter, @ASudkaemper.