Monday, July 22, 2013

The better angels?

As I glanced through the NY Times headlines this morning, the title "Why Men Need Women" by Adam Grant popped up. Interesting, I thought, clicking through. What I would read there would so horrify me that it drove me to post about it here.

Grant begins somewhat innocuously: basically, research demonstrates that men surrounded by women are more kind and generous. There are several social explanations for this, and a social/cultural explanation seems to be one that needs exploring: the ways that we praise girls and women for cooperation and collaboration yet demean men as weak when they show the same qualities; the role of gender expectations, the fact that women could simply remind men to be a bit better because of all the cultural associations, not necessarily because of women's own inherent goodness and men's inherent depravity.

Grant's mistake, however, is reading these results not with an eye toward what they say about gender and the force of social expectations that govern male and female behavior, but instead as a perpetration of the Victorian myth of the "angel at the hearth." This idea that women gentled men, were the better angels, functioned to civilize and domesticate men, should have been tossed out as just another way of controlled female behavior and prevent women from moving outside the spheres of domesticity and Victorian femininity. Yet, here it remains under a new guise.

The first sign of trouble emerged when Grant argues
Daughters apparently soften fathers and evoke more caretaking tendencies. The speculation is that as we brush our daughters’ hair and take them to dance classes, we become gentler, more empathetic and more other-oriented.
Um, what? So, raising a son makes men less empathetic and other-oriented? There seems to be an logical gap here.  Is it the act of raising a daughter or the desire to demonstrate appropriate female behavior for one's daughter that leads to men to be "gentler, more empathetic, and more other-oriented"? My brow furrowed further as I continued reading:
SOCIAL scientists believe that the empathetic, nurturing behaviors of sisters rub off on their brothers.
Again, I felt a little bubble of frustration rise up.  Grant assumes that women are naturally nurturing and empathetic, not that our society pushes women to be as part of the package given to us called "gender expectations".  (Cordelia Fine examines these assumptions in her excellent book Delusions of Gender, where she shoots holes in the studies claiming to scientifically demonstrate that women are more empathetic--it turns out that women act more empathetic when they think that's what the researcher wants. In other words, they tailor their behavior to the context when they are made to believe that gendered behavior is being examined). Gender expectations are powerful concepts, which we're rarely even conscious of; they shape our behavior subtly and powerfully.  While it makes sense that men who grow up more around women might alter their behavior to match those around them, it's dangerous to phrase it in terms of essential human nature. After all, if men can change their "basic nature," then surely women's actions are also malleable? This would seem to thus imply that male and female behavior are both highly context-driven--our behavior is directly affected by our social and cultural context, not our essential natures.

And finally, Grant places all women up on a pedestal as kind, generous, lovely ladies instead of socialized human beings (after all, bitchy, ambitious women are punished while ambitious men are rewarded--women avoid ambition or even sounding like they care about ambition).  He claims
We recognize the direct advantages that women as leaders bring to the table, which often include diverse perspectives, collaborative styles, dedication to mentoring and keen understanding of female employees and customers. But we’ve largely overlooked the beneficial effects that women have on the men around them. Is it possible that when women join top management teams, they encourage male colleagues to treat employees more generously and to share knowledge more freely? Increases in motivation, cooperation, and innovation in companies may be fueled not only by the direct actions of female leaders, but also by their influence on male leaders.
 This is the icing on the cake: women have moved from being the domestic angel to the work angels, reminding men not to be absolute dicks (woe unto the women who refuse to engage in this gender-appropriate behavior and dare to strive for goals and be ambitious like men). Victorian era redux.

To be fair, Grant thinks he is showing how women have an advantage. But what he fails to see is that by not contextualizing these findings within ideas of gender expectations, social and cultural influences, and how we construct women as the idealized human, he is simply perpetrating the myth that women are forces of good while men are damaging, ambitious brutes.

Instead, what I would have like to see is an argument taking these results and questioning how we can make it more acceptable for men to be generous and empathetic. Perhaps the presence of women gives me a way out of conforming to the male stereotypes of aggression and ambition--so how can we then enable men to be these things without that presence? Additionally, how can we move past the expectation that women should be--perhaps even must be--gentle, collaboration, and empathetic to enable them to succeed more fully? I want our society to be more generous and work together more often, but not at the price of essentializing women in a way that blocks them from advancement and success.

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