Monday, September 29, 2008

Dominance hierarchies, the inversions thereof, and whether women can afford to be nice

Derek, a very tall, bearded graduate student on my floor, inverts dominance relationships for fun:
  1. He has some sort of masters' student working with him whom he enjoys calling his "boss" and
  2. he will lay down on the ground when babysitting small children so the children are taller. He explains that he does this because he is a big guy and all still understand that he is dominant.
When he told me about this practice, I marvelled at the genius of the idea and was quite excited to try it out. Unfortunately, several people told me that this may not work so well for me.

"But wouldn't my acting subordinant make people think that I was inverting the dominance relationship and, in doing so, establish my dominance?"

Apparently not. I was told that since I am a "small Asian girl," my dominance is not taken as a given, and the best I could hope for is dragon lady*.

We can infer a few stylized facts from this anecdote:
  • Dominance is something that some people (perhaps men?) establish and/or reference in interactions not only with peers, but with non-peers (such as small children).
  • The establishment of dominance is such a recognized/accepted/overused gesture that the absence thereof can signal dominance. (An analogous situation in presentation of wealth: tasteful concealment of wealth connotes greater wealth than an ostentatious display, which labels the offender as nouveau riche.)
  • The dominance of petite Asian women is not taken as given and therefore people of this type cannot take advantage of negative signalling.

I bring up this story because I have recently been thinking about gendered "cultural" differences and their role in the success of women in computer science. In a recent post, I discussed a theory on the male model of dominance vs. the female model of cooperation and how this impacts the way women are viewed in the heavily male-populated field of computer science. I was discussing this with a very successful female computer scientist, who wondered if she would have been as successful if she had not taken such a "hardass approach" to certain things. She posed the questions of whether women in male-majority fields are required to actively establish dominance and whether this is a good thing.

The Derek story and other experiences have convinced me that as a petite Asian woman, it is important for me to actively establish some sort as dominance so as not to be forced into a subordinant position. That is, in order to interact on the same level with many of my peers I must first signal that I am competent and not going to tolerant shit. I conclude that I personally, for some reason or other, need this active reestablishment of dominance for "success," and I deem this to be a good thing because currently the entire world (not just the field of computer science) judges Things That Matter To Society (intelligence, worth, etc.) by "male" standards**.

Note: I think it is complete bullshit that the world is this way, but as far as whether it is bad that computer science judges women by men's standards my answer is no, since in this case my chosen calling forces me to develop skills that will earn, in expectation, greater respect by The People Who Matter To My General Success.

Small Asian girls sleep a lot (false) and it is getting close to my bedtime (true), so I will wrap up this post with some additional analysis:
  • Asian cultural things don't help when being judge on the "dominance scale." Humility, modesty, and general deference seem to "reveal" incompetence, insecurity, and other things that do not cause people to achieve success. After changing these behaviors, however, I was still told that I could only hope to pull off "dragon lady," so it is likely that 1) people associate Asians with these qualities and/or 2) being petite and being a woman are condemning traits.
  • Being petite definitely contributes to difficulty in establishing dominance. Since I have no experience as a a tall woman, I do not have much else to say about this.
  • After I got my hair cut very short I felt like I was taken more seriously, but this may have been psychological. An explanation for why this may have been so is that people have strong priors about Young Asian Women With Shoulder Length Hair (of which there are many) and few priors about Asian women with the very short Jean Seberg A bout de souffle haircut (and variations thereof).

*A reference to Jeannette Wing, Asian female professor of computer science and some big something-or-other at the National Science Foundation.

**According to Deborah Tannen, across all societies it is the male mode of whatever that is valued higher. For instance, in societies where men use an indirect way of speaking and women are more direct the men are considered more talented and refined and the women are considered crude. Women never win. Oh, and this is more evidence that the dominance-criteria is "male" rather than "objective," "good," or anything else like that.

1 comment:

Adam said...

This is really interesting--pretty goofy the world is like this--agree there's a lot of waste--I'd guess countersignaling is usually more for amusement or for trapping people occasionally (e.g. for great amusement) than for the role of proper signaling. But I do not know that people's foremost concern is accuracy or truth when they say you could aspire only to dragon lady.