There’s debate about whether Polar caps are melting, whether polar bears are at risk, and whether a Polar Express really picks up kids in the middle of the night on Christmas eve to take them to the North Pole. But the more concerning debate right now is whether men and women are getting increasingly polarized and at risk of reaching a fatal tipping point in the balance of power from which the sexes can’t recover. Fake news or real world problems? What do you think?
We often hear about gender bias and usually assume it means bias imposed by men against women. But what about women’s own internal biases? Study after study has shown that when women are primed based on their gender they perform worse. What do I mean by that? In a study of a group of young women taking a math test, where half the control group were asked to identify their gender – just identify whether they’re male or female – that half performed worse than the half who didn’t have to identify their gender. In fact, in a Harvard study of Asian-American students, the young women performed better when they had to identify their ethnicity but worse when they had to identify their gender. Similarly, a national U.S study of students taking AP calculus showed that the young women who were asked to identify their gender before the test performed worse than those asked the question after. This result held true even in studies when the priming was subconscious. In other words, in another Harvard study, even when ‘feminine’ words (like lipstick, pink or doll), were subliminally flashed unbeknownst to the participants, those primed with the feminine words performed worse than those primed with neutral words.
Let’s think about that for a moment. If the mere idea of identifying as a woman somehow makes us under-perform and not achieve our actual potential or capabilities, what does that say about the limiting beliefs girls and women have internalized about their gender? Think of the destructive power of these beliefs.
It goes even further. Not only do studies confirm that our performance is negatively impacted, but some studies support that our very ideas about what we’re even interested in can be manipulated by gender priming. For example, in a joint Toronto and Boston psychology study, female undergraduate students who were subliminally flashed with images of women not visible to the naked eye in advance of answering a questionnaire, ended up expressing a preference for arts over math whereas those who had been primed with male images did not.
When I thought about these studies, it made me wonder, how many times have I held myself back or pursued a path that may not have been my heart’s desire without being aware of it. Can you think of a time or times when maybe you underperformed even though you knew your stuff cold and you weren’t sure why, or maybe you stopped yourself from asking for more money, or you let a man take your idea, or held your tongue til you thought it might bleed, or maybe just doubted yourself and held back from going for something big?
Why does this happen? Where does this come from? And how does it affect the workplace, relationships, and your ability to negotiate your life?
Consider that gender biases and priming work both ways. Women, it seems, are primed to feel ‘less than’. But men are primed too. Studies suggest that still today, even elementary school-aged young boys are already primed about what it means to be ‘a man’. If a box is drawn on the blackboard and described as the ‘man box’, and the young boys are asked to describe the kinds of attributes that should go inside this box – in other words, that make a ‘man’ – invariably they lay out a host of old-school stereotypical characterizations of men. Like stud, strong, doesn’t cry, loves sports, takes charge. In other words, an image of hyper-masculinity.
How many of the men in your life do you think have felt pressure to act a particular way or ‘show up’ a certain way that may not have reflected how they felt at that moment, or maybe at all. Have you ever noticed that forced posturing in your father, partner, sons or other men in your life?
‘So what?’ some women may say. ‘Boo hoo – poor men made to feel like dominant over-performers.’ How does that compare to a lifetime of being made to feel like a submissive ‘not enough’?
Maybe we need to rethink how we look at this. Maybe it’s time to start reframing the problem – or at least broadening the lens. Clearly it’s problematic and unacceptable that women are (and have been) systematically conditioned not to reach their full potential. We’re faced with a host of limiting beliefs imposed upon us before our first tooth breaks through our tender gums. But isn’t imposing an expectation of hyper-masculinity on boys before they lose their toothless grins just another form of limiting beliefs?
The tide is changing now. People can feel it. We have the MeToo! movement, the Women Rising movement, the Times Up! movement. We see men getting roasted at the Oscars. With it, we’re seeing a lot of finger-pointing and blaming on both sides. And the very fact that I’ve described it as ‘sides’ is telling. We’re, perhaps not surprisingly, seeing a lot of push-back – an ‘us and them’ polarization building in some quarters. But what if we consider that it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game? What if it doesn’t have to be a win-loss? What if one group rising doesn’t need to be at the expense of the other group?
Maybe, in fact, the only way to break the destructive pattern of the damaging gender stereotypes and free women from these shackles they’ve borne, passed down generation after generation, is to recognize and similarly free men from the parallel shackles they’ve borne from their own damaging gender stereotypes.
Women – are you ready to bust through your limiting beliefs, have a voice and rise up? Are you also open to the possibility that to do that, we need to be sensitive to also reversing the stereotypes and conditioning we carry around the men in our life?
I suspect there will be a host of mixed reactions to this suggestion. From acknowledgement to curiosity to doubt to confusion to anger. That’s okay. It’s important to at least start the dialogue if we have any hope of making change – and hopefully making progress.