Aug 31, 2010

It's a feature, not a bug

Laurie Penny writes persuasively in the New Statesman about the interesting dynamics that lead to young women performing better than young men in education and the entry level stages of their careers. The argument is, in essence, a simple one:

  1. Women are taught from childhood to think of themselves as objects, not humans

  2. Employers prefer not to employ humans, as they can get dangerous ideas about deserving things like fair wages and job security. They prefer, on the whole, to employ resources

  3. Therefore employers prefer to employ young women resources, who conveniently prefer to be exploited by employers to being unemployed, because they believe they don't deserve any better and certainly don't have the right to hold out for better treatment

  4. QED

This is, basically, exactly true. Not only are girls socialised to be more docile, more complying, more self-effacing and less demanding, making them model employees for third world sweatshops and first world offices alike, they are also, and importantly, taught to invest the vast majority of their self worth in external indicators. By which I mean to say that there is an exponential list of approval metrics for young women, against which they are supposed to measure their right to exist in the world: weight (which should always be higher or lower than it is), beauty, popularity, numbers of sexual partners (which should always be higher or lower than it is), grades, the explicit approval of teachers and parents, and so on and so forth, for ever.

There is, by definition, no finish line or goalpost at which one can stop and say "I am good enough", for even if one's grades, breast size, boyfriend's income level and smoothness of hair are all exactly compliant with prevailing standards, there's always the possibility of cellulite, visible pores, or the exactly wrong length of skirt to let one down. Striving for perfection is as fruitless as it is mandatory - what Amanda Marcotte called "The Hermione Effect":

When I was in school, I noticed this gender divide. Most of the people I knew who changed majors, took only 9 hours a semester, filled their schedules with blow-off classes that didn’t go towards their degree---and thus took 5 or 6 years to graduate---were male. And most of the people I knew who worked their asses off because their financial support would be yanked if they didn’t were female. The in-between people, who worked their asses off though they probably didn’t have to, were mixed.

Young women are supposed to get serious sooner. This isn’t a mystery to anyone paying attention. Over and over again, we hear about how young women believe they should get straight As, be in perfect shape, be perfect in every way and make it look easy---supergirl syndrome. This also includes graduating college in 4 years. Young women didn’t just collectively decide that this was how it was going to be, you know. They’re picking up on expectations put on them.

Having said that, I think this only covers half of the career Catch-22 that women face. Because, you see, once your self effacing modesty and lack of pushy demands actually gets you the job, you immediately start being punished for being insufficiently pushy and demanding. Unless you're pushy and demanding, in which case you get punished for being too pushy and demanding, but that's another story.

Most companies today operate what they call a "meritocratic" system of employee evaluation and promotion. What this means in principle is that they don't get sued for gender discrimination. What it means in practice is that they define some arbitrary set of positive attributes, then make everyone prove that they measure up. The slight flaw in this set up from a young woman's point of view is that the attributes are usually rigged to be ones that are associated with men (assertiveness, decision making, risk taking, confident presentation etc.), and not having them is exactly the reason why young women get hired over young men in the first place, especially in a recession. So for a given subset of talented young owmen graduating from university today, having a job and being successful in it are mutually exclusive categories. Oh yes.

And that's even before we attempt to tackle the problem of how, exactly, one would demonstrate that one is indeed confident, decisive, risk taking, assertive and ambitious without falling into the following trap:

But then, that would be at least a Catch-44...


  1. I have no insight regarding men's expectations in the workplace...but having a son of my own I have heard time and time and time and time again how girls are smarter and do X, Y or Z faster than boys and I should just have lower expectations out of him. I can imagine this following young boys out of the home and into their early education and possibly longer. I mean, my parents certainly didn't expect much out of my brother and perhaps as a result neither did he. So while as a female I can totally see how women are screwed over time and again in the workplace, as a mother of a young son I am beginning to see how perhaps boys are getting screwed over in the education department.

  2. Completely agree. Patriarchy hurts everyone - it just so happens that the rewards are disproportionately distributed in favour of men, but that doesn't mean they don'y pay a huge price too.