Sunday, September 28, 2008

Gender balanced environments: harmful?

I arrived at Harvard after seven years at an all-female school and many years of mostly-male computer science summer programs. During freshman year, I would often joke to my roommates that the gender-balanced community was too much of a culture shock to me: perhaps I should transfer to either Wellesley (an all-girls school) or MIT (which has a 60/40 male/female ratio). This made little sense to my roommates, but I finally have an explanation of why the near 50/50 gender balance made Harvard difficult to navigate: as a woman in the most gender-imbalance department in the college (computer science), I found it difficult to develop a voice that suited me in my computer science life as well as the rest of my life. In this post I present the following point: women face a particular set of difficulties when they are in a male-majority field within a greater, gender-balanced community.

At the foundation of my argument is the idea that men and women in our society evaluate their same-gender peers in different ways*. While men tend to perceive conversation as ways of achieving dominance, women often view conversation as a way to cooperate. Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen says that men tend to do more public speaking, or report-talk, while women tend to do more private speaking, or rapport-talk. According to Tannen, the dominance view causes many men to establish authority/competence in conversation and view modesty, qualifiers, and conversational deference as signs of insecurity or incompetence. The cooperation view causes women to hide their competence in favor of building trust and view displays of authority/talent as obnoxious. Tannen also writes about how groups of males tend to value talent in each other, targeting their criticism towards those deemed to be incompetent, while groups of females tend to have more group values, targeting their criticism towards those they deem to be singling themselves out.

If we take these descriptions to be true, then we can explain why it is difficult to interact as a woman in a male-majority environment within a gender-balanced community. In a male-majority environment, men evaluate women as they would other men, making it difficult for women to be as successful if they are modest and polite (i.e., wait for people to finish speaking before saying what they want to say, in which case they may never get to speak). In a gender-balanced community, women are judged by men by men's standards, by women by women's standards, and everyone by how well all people (men and women) judge them. Ideally, men and women adjust standards when the groups mix, so the problem comes from women having to be judge by men's standards while still having to interact with other women. In this case, women are pressured to single themselves out while risking ostracization by female peers.

It is my theory that coming from an all-female environment, I was particularly sensitive to the judgment of fellow women and so I was particularly careful to display modesty and politeness. This was particularly harmful to my desire to be listened to and taken seriously by my computer science peers, where I felt like people were always talking over me and telling things in a somewhat condescending manner. I hypothesize that this is because the computer science department was male-majority, my peers were accustomed to evaluating each other on a male rubric. Since I did not realize that interaction with my academic peers required different behaviors from my interaction with my other peers, I was often quite frustrated with not getting listened to, getting talked over, etc. (Harvard is actually dominated by Tannen's "male" style of interaction, so I was generally confused about how to behave.)

Epilogue: Things didn't actually turn out that bad for me, since I became angry/bitter/cynical/jaded/mean and become quite successful that way. I am now at MIT and love it because the 80/20 male/female ratio makes it so that there is no question that I can be as mean as I want and not be ostracized by the other women, who are usually not even around to see me be mean. Also, I am my advisor's first female graduate student so my group members don't even know that women are supposed to be ncie. As a result, I am as mean as I want and really enjoying myself at MIT. This is particularly liberating after 7 years of being nauseatingly un-mean at my girls school. And by "mean," I mean that I no longer care as much what people think.

*My evidence is from experience and from the book You Just Don't Understand, by Deborah Tannen. Though Tannen's book is somewhat stylized and generalizing, Tannen says many things that seem correct and relevant. One good thing she does is she does not make claims as to why things are the way they are; she merely states her findings.

**Side discussion: Who has it right? I was talking to a friend about how all-girls environments are tricky to navigate because people are ostracized for showing off too much, and the friend says this seems like total waste. I pointed out that the "male" manner of competing and displaying everything also breeds waste. (Think peacocks or other birds with lots of useless feathers that cause them to be eaten much more quickly.) Also, many people at my high school were competitive, but we mostly kept it secret and would only ever go as far to say we "competed with ourselves." ("Lorrie did 3 points better than me. Man, I really need to do 4 points better than myself next time.") I don't claim to have a stance on "who has it right;" I just want to point out that there are differences. Both sides involve a bunch of waste.


Philip Guo said...

it'd be interesting to get the flip side of this, of men in predominantly-female environments, such as males in Ph.D. programs in English Literature or maybe nursing.

Will said...

I do notice in groups sometimes a tendency to interrupt others or make comments unrelated to what someone else just said, and then it starts to feel like a group of "hotshots" trying to outdo each other. And that usually annoys me, but it's funny too because there are definitely times when I feel those urges myself - I want to speak up instead of raising my hand or waiting because I worry that the conversation is going to move on if I don't, or I have some pet comment or theory I just have to mention even if it's unrelated to what someone else just said. I hope I do a better job of listening and "not trying to be dominant" in conversation, but it's hard to know exactly how well you pull that off, especially when caught in the moment or in a group where someone is like that.

Which reminds me, someone mentioned how very different the atmosphere was at Harvard between Radhika's course (266) and Margo's course (265) right after: "I spoke up in Radhika's course and people listened to me. I feel like if I spoke up in 265 people will assume I don't know what I'm talking about."

One last thing - I'm the only male in my Chinese literature section and it's kind of funny - we've had people comment how "this myth is about male fantasy-fulfillment because...". Guys get ragged on a little in section which feels... unique, but that's just because of the material rather than the class makeup :)

Jesse A. Tov said...

Article in NYT that might interest you: What Has Driven Women Out of Computer Science?

I'd have emailed, but I can't find your email address anywhere!

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