WHAT ABOUT THE MEN? PART 1: INTERNATIONAL MEN’S DAY – 19th NOVEMBER

I’d hoped to get writing my “What about the men?” series a lot sooner than this, but I figured that International Men’s Day would be a suitable place to start.  Or as I like to call it, “International where-are-all-the-dudes-who-were-asking-about-international-men’s-day-on-international-women’s-day Day”.

It’s the same every International Women’s Day (which is 8th March) – all the Neanderthals congregate on Twitter to lament the inherent sexism in having a day for a group that still faces oppression in 2016. The poor dears, something in the public realm that’s not all about them for a change. Clearly a feminist conspiracy to overthrow the patriarchy (which is, of course, totally amazeballs and not disadvantageous to humans of all genders At All). If only there was a special day just for them, where we could focus on men’s issues (which are real and sometimes distinct from women’s). Well, there is – and it’s today:
NOVEMBER 19THI imagine that every 8th March, Richard Herring sits, rocking, mumbling "November 19th" over and over.

The worst thing about the “but-when-is-international-mens’-day” debacle is that it trivialises actual problems specific to people of all genders. In the case of women, concerns that IWD is meant to address are dismissed and minimised; and the problems men face (that IMD is meant to highlight) are ignored because the overwhelming number of men talking about IMD are only doing so to troll feminists. There are some genuine problems affecting men that society needs to take responsibility for, including: the high rate of male suicide, autonomy issues related to circumcision, male rape, intimate partner violence, employment discrimination, conditions in prison, illnesses specific to male bodies, cultural expectations of masculinity, etc, etc.

These are all real concerns that IMD is designed to raise the profile of, and yet I have not seen a single IMD in which these issues were raised, discussed, and challenged. There are thousands of men who have been dealt a crappy hand in the game of life. They are let down by the privileged few refusing to accept anyone else’s struggle, and assuming that every criticism of sexist behaviour is an accusation levelled directly at them.

There is also the inevitable whataboutery that occurs when someone brings up an issue that disproportionately affects women.  The pattern goes like this:

Person 1: “Problem XX harms women and it’s predominantly perpetrated by crappy men.”

Person 2: “Well, I’m not sexist, so your concerns are invalid.”

Person 1: “I’m not saying that you are sexist, I’m saying that this is a problem perpetuated by men to the detriment of women.”

Person 3: “Yeah but #notallmen”

Person 1: “Yes, I agree.  Not all men are like that.  But the way the problem manifests itself is in a single direction, and it needs to be addressed, by all of us.”

Person 2: “Yeah, but why do I need to do anything about it? I’m not sexist!  You’re sexist by saying men are sexist!”

Person 1: “No, I explicitly said that –”

Person 4: “What about issue XY?  That affects men!”

Person 1: “Well, we’re talking about problem XX now.  It doesn’t mean that issue XY isn’t also a problem.”

Person 3: “No-one ever talks about men’s issues! It’s discrimination!”

Person 1: “No-one’s saying that men don’t have problems related to their gender.  But on the whole, women have been socially and historically oppressed by society.”

Person 4: “You’re calling me an oppressor!  I’m not the oppressor!  See, you can’t trust women; forever making shit up!”

Person 1: “Actually, I’m a bloke.  Men can be feminists, too.”

Person 2: “LOL what a pussy! You gay or something?”

Person 1: *headdesk*

All this leads to is the notion that women’s problems don’t matter, and men’s problems don’t exist – a view promoted by men and women (it’s not just the extremes of the gender politics spectrum – like MRAs and Radical Feminists – that are doing this, it’s ordinary men and women too).  And it leads to IWD becoming a circus, and IMD becoming a joke.

This is bad enough in itself, but I’ve been carrying out a little experiment – unconsciously at first, but when I noticed a pattern, I couldn’t resist seeing what would happen if I pushed some more of the Male Identity Buttons. It’s nowhere near as dastardly as it sounds (no men were harmed in the making of this blog post); all I did was to post and retweet articles that talk about gender inequality to the detriment of men, as well as those I post on inequalities that particularly affect women (and other oppressed groups or minorities – but there is nowhere near the volume of pushback received if I were to post about racism, say. Unless it’s about #BlackLivesMatter; white people are losing their shit over that).

Predictably, there were the same old voices commenting on articles with a feminist perspective, diverting the conversation towards men.  And something else happened too.  I’d been running my “experiment” for over a year, and so was able to gather data on the type of comments made on articles from a men’s equality angle.  Let’s take a look at how many times people leapt into the comments thread to say that “women have problems too / not all women / what about men being sexist towards men / what about the struggles of disadvantaged male minorities / well, I don’t think men’s problems are real / men are forever making false accusations against women / what about, what about, what about…”

Oh.

There is a problem.

You see, the comments on articles about men’s issues didn’t follow the same pattern as those on the women’s issues posts. This is because there were no comments at all. A big, fat zero. Some people did “like/react” to these posts, but not any of the usual detractors. Additionally no-one commented with anything positive to say, but it’s difficult to say anything about the nature of comments that didn’t happen.

Which leads me to conclude that the “what about the men”-ers, and the “not all men”-ers, don’t actually care about gender equality for anyone. They just want an excuse to put women in their place and retain their position at the top of the social hierarchy. But you know what? International Men’s Day isn’t about women (that’s 8th March – yet no-one asks Richard Herring about that), although it is about how men can benefit both from feminism and from society recognising that there are some gender inequalities skewed in the other direction – and just like female oppression, male oppression harms us all.

Here is a selection of some of the male-issue-oriented articles and other findings that I posted and tweeted about:

 

“Son, men don’t get raped” | GQ

8 things men never talk about, but should | Joe.co.uk

A bit of #everydaysexism I encountered in Manchester Piccadilly railway station

How Sad Young Douchebags Took Over Modern Britain | VICE UK

A Stiff Upper Lip Is Killing British Men | VICE UK

Suicide Statistics Report 2016 | Samaritans

 

They’re all valid and troubling problems that society needs to overcome.  And yet we never see “Men’s Rights” types campaigning on these issues.  Remember that when you mock the idea of gender inequality, or stay quiet on men’s issues.

Who will speak up for the men?

INTERNALISED MISOGYNY BY PROXY

As a child, I was brought up as a boy.  I’d be encouraged to do “boy stuff”, and I naturally gravitated towards stereotypically male interests, behaviours and clothing.  And my parents encouraged it.  Throughout my school and university career, I had always felt a stronger affinity with males than females, and I never really got along with girls.  It’s hard to describe in terms that don’t come across as essentialist or reductive, but growing up I felt that I was “more like” the boys than the girls.  I felt awkward in female company, and hated it when teachers and other parents would try to funnel me into “girly” activities.  Even now, I still feel this way, which sure is an education in the complexity of gender (Clue: it’s not a binary!).

But because it’s easier to explain in terms of what society deems “male” things, and “female” things, it can come across as sounding quite misogynistic.  I once was talking with a feminist friend about interactions with women (this started off as a discussion about women who are sexist towards other women), and they got quite angry about my assertion that I preferred male company.  Of course, you can be interested in whatever the hell you like.  You can work on a building site, and go home to watch Sex and the City and strut around in high heels – whatever gender you are.  Men and women can still be men and women whether they like things traditionally associated with their gender or not.  Many butch women are adamant that they are women, many “girly” girls may feel masculine on the inside.

But I do wonder about the way I see the world and the way I was socialised.  As I said above, I was raised like a boy, and it suited me just fine.  My brother got a bit of a rough deal, as he was actually very effeminate – but my parents were having none of it, as they didn’t want him to grow up to be a “sissy”.  So I was brought up in quite a macho environment, but my dad has a real bugbear about people who break gender rules.  Only men should do “men’s jobs”, and women should stay at home with the kids.  Which does make me wonder quite how he sees me.  Obviously he is pleased that I got a good education, and a decent job… but I’m an engineer.  In conversation, it regularly comes up that “men should be men” and “women should be women”, while I’m sat there with my metaphorical site hat on.  It’s almost as if “women are crap, but you’re different”, or “how can I be racist when I have a black friend?”.  And I feel uneasy because although I don’t like that attitude, I have benefitted from it.  And I have such a strong sense of self that if things were to change for me, I’d feel like I had lost something precious.

It’s great that the world is changing to be more inclusive and diverse.  That’s the way to do it, to raise standards of the disadvantaged while those at the top of the food chain stay still.  If only we could all buy into it without having our fragile identities threatened, eh?

CORPORATE FEMINISM PART 2

Ages ago (well, here, actually), I posted about successful women who reject feminism because they think they don’t need it any more.  Social changes have helped them to get to where they are, and they become blind to the problems that other women encounter. They buy in to the idea of a true meritocracy, where we are 100% responsible for our own successes and failures, and that your background, education, connections, wealth, etc. have nothing to do with it.

I’ve been in this situation myself, I grew up in a family that I hesitate to even call working-class (because they didn’t actually work), I left the dead-end town I grew up in, and went to University (against my parents wishes).  I now have a great job, I’m comfortably well-off, and my life is completely different (and better) to what I would have had if I’d followed in my family’s footsteps.  It feels like everything I’ve done, I did for myself.  But that’s not quite true.  I was very lucky to have received such a good education (my teachers were way better role models than my parents), and the drive to get more people attending Uni from lower social classes meant that my study was subsidised.  I wouldn’t have been able to access the same opportunities if steps hadn’t been made in the name of equality.

Which brings me back to one example of rampant internalised misogyny, so blatant it sounds like I must have made it up.  But no.  This was no satire or Poe, these were genuine actual successful women, lording it over the rest of us, as follows:

I was invited to attend a Women in Engineering event (it wasn’t run by one of the big engineering institutions, and I’m not telling you which one it is anyway, for self-preservation reasons), and I expected it to be fairly similar to most other evening do’s I attend professionally: a talk, networking, fancy canapés.  Well, it did have those three things, but some extra bonus items too!

A presentation on how women can become more successful and ascend the career ladder more easily, with literally no advice on answering that question.  It did, however, have plenty of snarky in-jokes about how men get all uppity if women start promoting themselves or demand recognition.

The networking post-presentation was part-good, part-bad.  There were some people there who were involved with Engineers Without Borders (like Medecins Sans Frontiers, but with bricks and steel beams), who talked about their work overseas, and how it can be a good way to advance your career (Yes! Solid, specific and useful career advice! At last!).  Those individuals were all women under 30, and they saw two important challenges that they could overcome with their projects:

1. There are places around the world that not only need investment and innovation, but they are also full of opportunities on a personal, industrial and political level;
2. Women and young people are under-represented in our sector, and they have found a niche to get around this problem.

Good work guys! This was definitely the most inspiring part of the evening (excluding the free wine). And then there were some other people, at director-level, who basically talked like a bunch of old, white men straight out of the 70’s. When I spoke about feeling limited and underestimated, they said that this was impossible, because they’d never experienced it. If we spoke about the problem of women being viewed as aggressive when they are assertive, that was a myth too, because they’d been doing fine for the last 30-odd years. Us silly girls must be over-sensitive or something.

And all of this hurts, not just me, but all of us. Because sexism and other prejudices and biases are very real. While my school education was genderless, I encountered a few strange attitudes when I arrived at university. Generally my tutors were 100% normal human beings with no discernible biases, but one in particular used to “compliment” me (repeatedly) for being a woman studying the subject. Yes, I was probably a bit of a novelty (er, twenty years previously, even then), but it wasn’t the only thing that defined me.

In the workplace it got even weirder, like some of my colleagues had been brought up in another epoch or something.  Things have come a l-o-n-g way over my short time in the industry (15 years).  And this is in part due to huge effort by the government, engineering institutions, and individual firms, to attract a more diverse workforce into the profession.

When we say that we’ve outgrown the support systems, or that they are no longer important because some individuals have achieved success against the odds,  we are dismissing the needs of those who aren’t as fortunate as us.  Because there are still real barriers in the way, for all sorts of reasons.  Empathy is important here, because in order to effect social change, you have to understand things from another’s perspective, and acknowledge that not everyone achieves success purely on merit.

Is it a protective mechanism? Like if we admit that the system helped us to get over hurdles, we’ll reveal that we didn’t do it all by ourselves and are some sort of fraud?  We need to be more honest about this, and not begrudge those who have been luckier in life, but accept and understand that their life took a different path to that of many others.  And that it’s ok to make up for it in other respects if you started off with less.  And that it’s our duty to support and advance each other for the success of humanity.

As an aside, the next event I was invited to by this group was a shoe-shopping trip.  No, I’m not making that up.  No matter how much I love shoes, I somehow don’t think I would have fitted in.  I declined their invitation.

NO SH*T, SHERLOCK

I’m not an avid viewer of the BBC series Sherlock. In fact, there are a lot of geeky series that I don’t follow, mainly due to time constraints. So I do feel a bit left out, especially when my mates are all talking about whatever episode had that controversial / exciting / conversation-starting plot device.

But on Boxing Day, I made an exception. Much like 2014’s Xmas Doctor Who special (the WWII themed-one), I allowed myself to just sit and absorb for a couple of hours, and it was wonderful. I really enjoyed the episode, for a lot of reasons (some of them outlined below), but I felt particularly compelled to write about it because of the inevitable Twitter furore. And I somehow managed to disagree with almost all of it, so maybe I should have joined in to shake it up a bit.

Overall, I thought it was a good story – as a non-viewer of said series, it really drew me in and was intriguing and fun. It was just complex enough to require 100% of the viewers attention, but not so complex as to exclude a large portion of the audience. But there seemed to be some issues that people had with it:

1. That it co-opted feminism as a plot device
Well, ok, that is one way of looking at it. But we have often based period dramas in times of turmoil, and used the events of the day as a backdrop for a more in-depth or even tangential story. Did Lady Chatterley’s Lover co-opt the decline of the landed gentry? Did Atonement co-opt the plight of soldiers in WWII? Did Doctor Zhivago co-opt the Russian Revolution (actually, some people did claim that, but then I guess there is no limit to what people will get offended by)? I don’t see why the suffragist or feminist movements should be immune to use in TV dramas. And if we “protect” them by not using their historical context to set the scene, then they become invisible and their importance diminished.

The main reason I take issue with this point is that everyone’s perspective is different, and this argument is framed through the lens of someone who is really clued-up about current feminist topics, and ignores the fact that a large number of viewers will not be so involved with that particular movement. I actually see it as a very positive thing that it featured the suffragettes. Their time is one that I do feel is neglected by the history books and lessons, even though it was a mere 100 years ago. So many people will just see the suffragists in the programme and be reminded of that part of our history. Others may analyse it further, but in terms of what we can reasonably fit into a two-hour drama that isn’t really about that topic, I think they did a bloody good job.

2. That the suffragists were the “bad guys”
Oh, good grief. Talk about missing the point. Sherlock clearly states that:
“Every great cause has martyrs. Every war has suicide missions and make no mistake, this is war. One half of the human race at war with the other. The invisible army hovering at our elbow, tending to our homes, raising our children. Ignored, patronised, disregarded. Not allowed so much as a vote. But an army nonetheless, ready to rise up in the best of causes. To put right an injustice as old as humanity itself. So you see, Watson, Mycroft was right. This is a war we must lose.”

On the one hand, this looks like an admission by a 19th-Century man that things need to change. He’s being honest about inequalities in that society, and accepting the violent acts committed by the suffragists as necessary and in pursuit of a noble and morally justified cause. Also, we need more female baddies. There’s no point getting more women on the screen if they’re inoffensive cardboard-cutouts. Give them agency, give them flaws.
And on the other hand, it looks like…

3. Sherlock basically explained feminism to a room full of women.
When I saw this quote on Twitter, my immediate thought was “Haha, that is well funny! He actually did do that!”. But I didn’t feel that it was patronising, and like in my first point, many of the audience will not hold a degree in gender studies, and so wouldn’t pick up on this point. Whether or not that is a bad thing (yeah, it kind of is) is a topic for another post, but you have to work with what you’ve got. Unfortunately, a lot of TV is made with the lowest common denominator in mind. Bearing this in mind, I actually think the episode was quite progressive.

4. That the main villain fitted the cliché of the jilted woman out for revenge
Yeah, they did. But there are plenty of cliches in entertainment, some stand as they are, some are mocked, some are challenged, and some are twisted to tell a bizarre time-hopping dream-sequence story. I don’t think this was a problem at all, and it follows the pattern of cheesy mystery novels – if you were feeling a bit postmodern, you could say it was done ironically (I’m not going to do this because I’m not a hipster twat).

5. That the suffragettes were wearing weird KKK-style hoods
Hmmm, yes. When I watched it I just interpreted it as them being a clandestine society revealing their true nature, to complete the story. But it is quite weird, I will admit that. One possible explanation, related to point 2; back then, the suffragists were seen as the bad guys by contemporary society. They were violent, unnatural, and an affront to decency, etc, etc, so portraying them as secretive and evil might be a good way of accurately representing their perceived threat to society. Still weird, though.

6. That it wasn’t feminist enough
Oh, come on. It might have been clumsy and controversial, but it was a very pro-feminist episode. Exemplified by Molly’s appearance as Dr. Hooper, disguised as a man. It’s the only way she would have been able to get “a man’s job” at that point in history. As Watson remarks, “Amazing… what one has to do to get ahead in a man’s world.”

7. That it was confusing and difficult to follow
Well, it was something that you needed to invest in. There was a lot going on, and the viewer needed to not just figure out the solution to the mystery, but why everything was suddenly set in the wrong era, with the regular characters in equivalent, past roles. I noticed something was up with Sherlock’s “virus in the code” line – such an obvious anachronism – but because I don’t usually watch it I didn’t know it’s normally set in the present day. I like my stories to be complex and engaging, maybe some people don’t. Their loss.

8. That it didn’t follow the Sherlock “formula”
I actually don’t have a reference point for this, because as I said, this is the first Sherlock I’ve ever seen. I get the impression that a lot of the haters don’t like Stephen Moffat’s style generally. I know plenty of people are relieved that he’s leaving Doctor Who (another series I have very little knowledge of), but given that I also liked the WWII 2014 Xmas special, which he wrote, I guess I’d be inclined to disagree. But it’s a matter of taste,

On the whole, I felt the episode did a great job. Holmes was simultaneously likeable and repugnant, Watson was likeable and provided a lighter counterpart, Mycroft was peculiar and Moriarty was delightfully creepy. Attention to detail was so precise that the odd time-switching things were noticeable as “errors”. The link to the suffragettes was done in a sensitive and interesting way, while still remaining true to the characters personas (so I am told ). The format was pretty cool, and, well, I sat still for two hours to watch it, so they must have got something right.

GENDER-NEUTRAL PRONOUNS (SKIPTON BUILDING SOCIETY)

I’m browsing banks for a new savings account, and I found this on the Skipton Building Society application form.  I have no idea if other banks do this, but I find it pleasing that the title ‘Mx’ is available on their form:

non-binary banking
non-binary banking

More info on gender-neutral titles is available here.  I find it really interesting that in the UK, the only non-gendered honorifics are related to occupation or level of qualification.  But we still get that wrong, sometimes.  Oops.

CORPORATE FEMINISM

“Corporate Feminism” is a term I only recently encountered. It succinctly categorises some of the things I’ve seen in my professional life, so it’s useful to have a word for this feeling that I couldn’t quite pin down. But the term also makes me uneasy, because I really don’t like telling people whether or not they are “real” feminists. In its simplest form, feminism is “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). And that covers a huuuuuuuuuuge range of opinions, individuals and movements. When someone asks me about Feminist Theory, my default answer is “which one?” There are so many people with some broadly similar aims, but other, more specific and sometimes separate ones (this Wikipedia article is a good synopsis, but even that doesn’t cover every eventuality).

It also feels a bit off being a feminist criticising other feminists, but feminism is unbelievably introspective anyway, and so I’m not going to sweat too much over that one.  One danger though, is that anti-feminists use criticisms of some aspects of feminism to denounce the whole thing.  And I don’t want to contribute to that, thanks.

However, corporate feminism seems to be about paying lip service to feminism without embracing the spirit of equality.  It’s espoused by women who have reached the point where they are able to compete in “a man’s world”, and they no longer have time for those women who haven’t got to the same stage as them.  It’s frustrating, because the success stories actually cause harm rather than encouragement.  There are people who think that feminism has solved all our problems, or that inequality only happens in other countries.  And this just fuels that feeling.  So when a woman does describe her experience, or injustices are pointed out, it’s so easy to dismiss: “well, those women are successful, so there is obviously no problem”.  And it’s a double bind.  We need female role models, but when they get there, they don’t always offer a hand to those lower down the ladder. Sometimes those same women actually do harm, by embracing the Old Boys Network and undertaking actions that damage other women’s opportunities.

Here are some good articles on this:

Slate.com | Corporate Feminism: Rich Women Congratulating Each Other for Being So Inspiring (this reminds me of a few events I’ve been to, more on this in a future post)

Why corporate feminism is convenient for capitalism | Dawn Foster | Comment is free | The Guardian (Clue: because it’s the kind of feminism where you don’t have to do anything, and can sit back and pretend you don’t have any prejudices)

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Feminism Puts Women Issues at Risk | The New Republic (On how not all women can afford to “lean in”)

And I will leave you with this brilliant cartoon from Radical Splurge, summarising the issue nicely:

Radical Splurge: Breaking the Glass Ceiling and the Wonders of Corporate Feminism

WOMEN ASKING QUESTIONS

I attend a lot of public talks (usually of a scientific and skeptical nature), and frequently most of the audience questions come from men.  It’s been noted that more women attend the talks in the first place over time (good), but it’s still the men that are the most vocal.  So there are two different parts to this problem:

  1. It used to be a male-dominated environment, but now it isn’t.
  2. Women still don’t ask as many questions as men, regardless of audience make-up.

So, regarding the first point, there are many reasons that the gender balance is closer to parity. Maybe it’s because there are more female speakers (solving the visibility problem), but I’d be tempted to hypothesise that it’s because there are more speakers and topics generally, thus reaching out to a wider and more varied audience. So it is an issue of accessibility, but only because the range of topics is not so narrow. Unfortunately I don’t have any data on the groups I attend, so I can’t actually test the theory. Dammit.

However, this article in The Guardian does cover this notion, that “the fault lies with past generations of [atheist] leaders who didn’t address the issues that matter most to women and minorities“.  Note that I’m not a fan of the term ‘leader’ when applied to atheist groups, as it has connotations of religious ‘leadership’, and I don’t think we should be putting rational thinkers on a pedestal.

So now that many atheists have moved with the times and looked beyond their own experience, matters that affect people who might not necessarily be like them are brought up.  And it’s a good thing.  And it’s been done silently and with relatively little fuss.  Which brings me on to the next part of the problem.

There is an argument that the newcomers to the group might still be finding their feet and less likely to speak up.  Well, ok, seems plausible.  But also there’s the issue of what has been studied, measured and reproduced in many psychology and sociology papers.  That when women speak up it’s received differently to if a man was talking.  Unfortunately it’s not just in the workplace that this happens, and if you see a pattern occurring every time you dare to open your mouth, then the safest thing might be to keep quiet.

One way is for the speaker to pick more questions from women audience members.  And I think the success of this lies in the execution.  If it’s done subtly (i.e. so that it’s not obvious what’s going on  – I didn’t say imperceptible, mind), then it can work, and builds a foundation for a more balanced mix of questioners at future events.  I attended one talk where the speaker specifically asked for questions from women because they feel women are often under-represented in this respect.  This gets a mixed reception – it just so happened that at this event it worked out well, no-one objected, and we got a good mix of questions from male and female audience members.  Maybe that would have been the case anyway, but there’s no way of knowing.  It was important in some ways that the speaker highlighted this problem because people do feel a bit uneasy about addressing feminist issues – like it’s a dirty word or it might upset the men – and we need to get over that.  However, some people complain that it seems patronising (or even a form of benevolent sexism), and that’s always a risk you run, especially to an audience containing women who already feel empowered.

I think the best way is to encourage women to speak, but in more subtle ways, and ensure that we give them the airtime without interruptions, without some oaf ignoring what they’d said and repeating the same idea and claiming it as their own; without explaining things to them that they already know.  Basically to demonstrate that it’s a respectful environment for anyone to ask questions.  And yes, I know that in the majority of cases, this is so – but it’s the exceptions that stand out in people’s minds and have a more damaging effect.

SMILING

This is a difficult topic to write authoritatively on, because it’s not my area of expertise, and the only knowledge I have of it is a few pop sci articles and my own experience.  So this should perhaps be taken as an anecdote, but if I find any more information on it, I will post it here.

Another thing that makes it tricky is that while I have been able to find psychology papers on smiling, I haven’t been able to find very much on the specific scenario on which I want information. I did find this article from a business coaching firm’s website, but obviously they have a vested interest in identifying a behavioural problem. And how much of the problem’s existence and solution depends on everyone buying into it? It does quote a study undertaken at UCLA, which I wasn’t able to find. I did, however, locate a couple of interesting studies on smiling in job interviews:
  • Mollie A. Ruben, Judith A. Hall & Marianne Schmid Mast (2015) Smiling in a Job Interview: When Less Is More, The Journal of Social Psychology, 155:2, 107-126, DOI: 10.1080/00224545.2014.972312

(TL;DR: jobs viewed as more “serious” rate smiley candidates less favourably at interview, using smiles at different stages of the interview has differing effects, some jobs have male or female connotations, men smile less than women)

(TL;DR: people in positions of power smile according to their genuine emotions, people in low-power situations did not smile more overall but did smile more when they were not actually happy)

The situations described on the business coaching site do reflect my own experiences, but I am wary of my confirmation bias in the selection of studies I’ve found.  That having been said, I’ve found a reasonable solution that seems to be working for me, and if I base all of my decisions on a meta-analysis of a number of peer reviewed papers, I’ll never make it out of the front door.  Anyway, my story goes like this:

I was chatting with somebody about the perception of smiling (I can’t remember how we got on to this), and I mentioned that I try not to smile as much as I once used to.  It’s a part of my assertiveness drive mentioned in this post.  It’s because I tended (and I do sometimes still do, if I let my guard down) to smile at anyone and everything, when I’m talking to people about probably anything, at work, in the street, at university, when speaking to friends, strangers, acquaintances.  The problem isn’t the smiling itself, but its ubiquity.  My instinct was to always smile when addressed, and it’s just not appropriate.  This is a learnt behaviour, and while it’s ingrained and hard to break free from, I am more aware of it and I’m able to manage it more effectively.

So my problems with my incessant smiling were:

  1. I appeared to only have one emotional state: deliriously happy.  This effectively rendered me expressionless and less able to convey my emotions or intentions to others.
  2. People appeared to take me more seriously when I adjusted the volume control on my smile dial.  I do worry here that I might be seeing this because I’ve decided that this is the result I want, but I can think of a few examples in which someone thought they could get one over on me by laughing it off, and I didn’t play along… and it noticeably worked out in my favour, accompanied by their embarrassment (I’m not going to deny I felt satisfaction about this – but mainly because I didn’t end up the one looking like a fool).

The person I was talking with argued that smiling is a positive aspect of human interaction, and that is true.  The article in the first link addresses this, noting that a smile is a weapon to be wielded with skill and care.  Use it appropriately to your advantage in an exchange, but don’t apply a scattergun approach.

I’m going to finish with another article (from the Guardian) about the perception of women, that takes a slightly different direction.  So there’s evidence to show that people are more likely to lie to a woman than a man.  And many women would agree that they’ve been in a situation where people bullshitted them and not their male colleague / friend / partner.  But the Guardian piece argues that that’s not the part of the problem that you need to look at.  Sure women get lied to more, but doesn’t that make them more vigilant to lying?  And by extension, better liars themselves?  Well, that’s one way of redressing the balance, I suppose.

DOWN TO EARTH

There’s a double-edged problem with social class in my engineering sector that I see repeating itself over and over. I’ve worked in the industry for 15 years and this thing doesn’t seem to have changed. I find it sad because it’s off-putting and it holds people back.

There are many who (rightly) see engineering as a respected profession, with certain standards of presentation and behaviour. Good. But then there are some who take it too far, and it becomes a way of excluding people who are different, who don’t quite fit the mould. The success stories I’ve observed are predominantly male, white, and over 6′ tall. Frequently, issues related to one out-group are intertwined with those of other groups, and often, people fall into more than one category.Then there’s the other stereotype, the amiable salt-of-the-earth. This is limiting for both those within the group, and exclusive for those who feel they’re out of it. One place I worked at was reviewing CVs and they laughed at an applicant for having a Ph.D. Apparently they were too much of a “geek”. It’s really worrying that in a profession that requires intensive training; education and aspirations are openly mocked.

So what happens if you fall somewhere between the two groups? Well, you don’t really fit anywhere. And as much as we like to pretend we live in a meritocracy, the playing field is not level. Being well-connected is often more important than having the right credentials. There’s also a fine balance between standing out and being left out. I’ve often heard it said that women (this might apply to any other ‘out’ group or minority, too) should use their gender as a positive, to distinguish themselves from the rest of the competition. But I don’t really like this argument for two reasons:

  1. It’s just encouraging division. If you’re being noticed just because you’re female, then you’re reinforcing the stereotype. It’s up to employers to apply anti-discrimination legislation and encourage diversity.
  2. It’s using a gung-ho attitude to deny that there’s a problem. “We can do it!” does nothing for those who feel that they aren’t getting anywhere, and it makes it look as though the problem has been solved.

So attitudes need to change, for sure. I sometimes feel like my industry is still 30 years behind everyone else. But other industries probably have their quirks and nuances too. Things will change over time, but definitely for the better? I think the situation I’ve experienced is quite unusual in that there’s a two-tier system of acceptable class, dress and behaviour, especially seeing as the two groups in this case are quite distant from each other – the gap stretches from upper working class to upper middle class, with nothing in-between. What does it mean? Is it reflective of society? Does it highlight inequality?

ENCOURAGING WOMEN INTO ENGINEERING

This is a thorny topic for me. On the one hand, yes, this country has a shortage of engineers, and a great way to resolve that is to encourage more women to take up roles in this field. On the other, I think that a lot of the highly-publicised profiles of women in STEM careers are not representative of the experience of most women who work in these fields. And the statistics support this. Women in comparable STEM roles to men are paid less, valued less, and progress more slowly. How could I recommend that sort of future to another person?

And then we face a chicken and egg issue. Without a representative workforce, the prevailing culture will remain unchallenged and unchanged. But the workforce will not be more representative until there are more women and minorities working there.

The UK government has been advised on the consequences of not supporting more jobs in engineering, and it is recognised that if women do not enter or remain in the profession, we are effectively cutting the talent pool in half.

The Guardian featured an article (link below) promoting careers in engineering to females. This is great for visibility, but it really doesn’t tell the whole story.

What’s it like to be a woman in the engineering industry?

All of the women in this piece talk about the exciting things they do in their work, which is great. Engineering can be fulfilling and rewarding, and fun. But the politics, culture and personalities in the industry can get in the way of actually getting the job done.

One of the engineers in the piece talks about proving herself in a male-dominated industry. This is something I’ve encountered many times. Why should women have to prove themselves any more than men should? Or have to work harder than men for the same pay? Oh, except it isn’t the same pay.

Another says “My advice is do not hide your femininity at work and relish in your different perspective – act on what you believe is important”. Two things: most successful women I know in my sector of engineering act very masculine. And if you do look quite feminine, people will comment on it. And if you act quite butch, people will comment on it. So either way you’re damned, but if you try to be one of the boys you’re more likely to succeed. Another: “relish in your different perspective”. Well, it would be great if different perspectives were acknowledged, but in my experience groupthink is encouraged and anyone with a contrasting idea is swiftly put in their place. Where are these workplaces that encourage this sort of thing? Because I haven’t found one yet.

Someone else says “There are many women where I work in very senior roles which just goes to show that gender does not affect ambition and that you should always aim high.” Well, I agree with the last part. Ambition is genderless. But I’m not seeing the women in exec-level roles. I attend events specifically for women in engineering, which have a core regular attendance of maybe 30 people. I enjoy meeting other female engineers, hearing success stories and about other projects. But that’s just a small handful of people. How many other engineers out there are male? Women make up just 9% of engineering professionals in the UK.

“You’re not treated differently and gender isn’t an issue”. That may be the case where you work, and I’m very happy for you. I wish that all workplaces were the same.

“I think it’s fantastic to see more and more women joining our ranks in what used to be a traditionally male industry”. Well, yes, that’s the overall goal. Things are changing, but we’re really not at the point where we can say that it used to be a traditionally male industry. 91% male is a pretty overwhelming figure.

I suppose it makes me sad that we’re still having these conversations these days, or that there is a need to target women specifically to encourage them into STEM subjects. If the playing field were truly level, everyone would feel welcomed and we wouldn’t be talking about certain groups being “turned off” by certain subjects. I feel that very little has changed with regard to the perception of women in my (rather niche sector) over the last 15 years. The only place I’ve truly felt an equal is at University, being on a fantastic undergrad program with great tutors and the chance to shine. A step into the world of work was a shock. Of course study is different from the workplace, but I was totally unprepared for the marginalisation and disillusionment that I experienced. It seems that my goals become further and further out of reach, while they are easily attainable by others around me.

A final thought. This article in the Harvard Business Review details research carried out on women’s career trajectories, and finds that common beliefs about women’s career progressions are unfounded.

Rethink What You “Know” About High-Achieving Women

It’s also referenced in this article from NYMAG:

Stop Blaming Women For Holding Themselves Back At Work