On Femaleness and Aggressiveness

by Jenn Robinson

I was directed to this article by a Facebook post by a friend of mine for college, and I found it really interesting.  I was interested in the subject’s descriptions of actual physical changes that occurred when he went through the gender-changing process, like the fact that he found he could now read maps more easily.  And the social changes, like finding that he got cut off in conversation much less often.  But the discussion of how an aggressive and competitive spirit in science seems to hold women back really intrigued me.

A couple years ago, I visited a friend while at a conference and his wife, who is a professor of physics, was commenting about her recent experience serving on a faculty search committee.  It turned out that they had two candidates that almost everyone agreed were the top two, one male and one female, but it seemed that a lot of the male faculty on the committee tended to rank the male candidate above the female one.  Now, this, in itself wouldn’t be unusual, but apparently she thought the female candidate seemed more suited to the position, so she asked some of her colleagues why they chose the male candidate and they said that they thought the female candidate wouldn’t be aggressive enough to be a professor.

This comment provoked a thoughtful conversation between the two of us over breakfast about whether or not the female candidate was perceived as less aggressive simply due to her gender, and what this might mean for female candidates for faculty positions.  I don’t remember what we decided, except that she was adamant that I consider continuing on an academic track after getting my PhD, because apparently no one would accuse me of not being aggressive enough, but it bears considering.

Because I had a liberal arts education, I had to take a bunch of humanities and social sciences classes, including one about the perceptions of sex and gender across cultures.  And it was generally agreed that the Euro-centric idea of “womanhood” or “femaleness” involved a certain amount of yielding and non-aggression.  I think that the prevalence of feminist movements to assert their power actually supports this — if you want to know the norm, take the opposite of what counter-culture is trying to be.  So there could definitely be the idea that women are not supposed to be aggressive and competitive.

There might be some biological support for this, what with testosterone or something, but I’m not a biologist.  Even a person who doesn’t think women are delicate flowers might still be more likely to help a woman with a particularly heavy load, so most people have some ingrained amount of differentiation in their perception of the abilities of a woman.

But there are strong, assertive, aggressive women.  These women are called “bitches.”

Unfortunately, having that handy pejorative allows people an easy out when disagreeing with a woman who, in their opinion, is coming on a little strong.  So are women less aggressive, or are they holding their aggressive nature in check to avoid this nasty double-standard?

It turns out, that doesn’t work.  So what’s a girl to do?

This dilemma is something I’ve had to consider a little more closely, as I’ve recently defended my PhD thesis and have to consider what shape I want my career path to take.  Do I want to go into academia?  Well, I’ll have to make sure search committees not only think I’m good enough at the science, but also that I’ll be aggressive enough to further my own career (and, by extension, the reputation of the institution), apparently.  Do I want to be a contractor?  Well, I’ll definitely be dealing with government/defense types, so that will mean battling a whole lot of “little-lady”-labeling guys who might not take my intelligence seriously.  Do I want to go into industry?  Well, that could even mean being grabbed as a diversity show-and-tell or marketing tool, a la Edmund Optics girls.

Personally, I’m hoping that my grad school strategy will continue to serve me:  I just don’t think about the gender difference unless I feel an explicit situation has arisen.  How do others deal with this issue?  Have you had to struggle with minor digs at your competence because of your gender?  Or perhaps you’re male and have noticed subtle differences in the treatment of men and women in your group/lab culture.