Tag Archives: The Hidden Brain

Too Sweet, Or Too Shrill? The Double Bind for Women.

hidden-brain-imageA couple days ago, the Hidden Brain podcast had a fascinating episode on how sexism affects women in leadership.  You can listen to it HERE.

Here is the transcript from the episode, as provided on the NPR page (emphases mine):

Fewer than 1 in 5 members of Congress are women. At Fortune 500 companies, fewer than 1 in 20 CEOs are women. And if you look at all the presidents of the United States through Barack Obama, what are the odds of having 44 presidents who are all men?

If men and women had an equal shot at the White House, the odds of this happening just by chance are about 1 in 18 trillion.

What explains the dearth of women in top leadership positions? Is it bias, a lack of role models, the old boy’s club? Sure. But it goes even deeper. Research suggests American women are trapped in a paradox that is deeply embedded in our culture.

When Moseley Braun was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992, she achieved a powerful first. She was the first female African-American senator. And in her race for office, she assumed that racism would be a more daunting obstacle than gender bias. But she says, that wasn’t the case.

“I think in some regards the gender biases are more profound and more central to our culture than even the racial ones, and that to me was the surprise.”

One moment in particular still stays with her, more than 20 years later.

“There was a cartoon from one of the newspapers in the state that showed me as a puppet, with my campaign manager’s hand up my dress,” she says. “And the idea that I was a puppet of this guy that who was managing my campaign was shocking to me.”

But shortly after Braun won her race, she says she confronted a second trap. One day, she made an impassioned plea on the floor of the Senate. But she says, all her colleagues could hear, was a shrill black woman.

Her experience is one that researchers have described as a “double bind” — a set of assumptions that get at our implicit assumptions about men, women and leadership.

“The female gender role is based on the stereotype that women are nice and kind and compassionate,” says social psychologist Alice Eagly. By contrast, she says, “in a leadership role, one is expected to take charge and sometimes at least to demonstrate toughness, make tough decisions, be very assertive in bringing an organization forward, sometimes fire people for cause, etc.”

So what’s a woman to do? Be nice and kind and friendly, as our gender stereotypes about women require? Or be tough and decisive, as our stereotypes about leadership demand? To be one is to be seen as nice, but weak. To be the other is to be seen as competent, but unlikable.

Connie Morella served for 16 years as a Republican congresswoman from Maryland. Like Democrat Braun, she says at times she struggled to be heard.

“In a committee room, when I wasn’t chair of the committee, I would respond to a question or comment on an issue, [and] they’d say, ‘Thank you, Connie, that was great.’ And a little later Congressman Smith would say the same thing, and it was, ‘Oh, Congressman Smith … that was fabulous, let the record show …’ and I’d think, ‘Gee, I just said that.’ ”

How can we tell, with scientific certainty, whether women like Morella and Carol Braun were the victims of bias? When we look at a female leader who appears incompetent or shrill, how do we know if we are seeing reality, or just seeing the world through the lens of our own unconscious biases?

That’s where researchers like Madeline Heilman come in. She’s a psychology professor at New York University who focuses on gender stereotypes and bias, particularly when it comes to leadership. In one study, Heilman asked volunteers to evaluate a high-powered manager joining a company. Sometimes volunteers are told the manager is a man, other times they’re told it’s a woman.

“When the person was presented as a high powered person, who was very ambitious, we found that the person was seen as much more unlikable when it was a woman than when it was a man,” she says.

In these studies, the high-powered male and female manager are described in identical terms, down to the letter. The only difference is that one is said to be a man, and the other is said to be a woman.

Heilman says that the double bind arises because our minds are trying to align our stereotypes about men and women, with our stereotypes about leadership.

“We have conceptions of these jobs and these positions and what is required to do them well, and there’s a lack of fit between how we see women and what these positions require,” she says.

The biases Heilman describes aren’t just held by men. They’re held by both sexes, which explains why many female leaders encounter derision and suspicion from men and women.

“We have very strong feelings about how men and women are, and that leads to this dislike when they go over the line, when they tread where they are not supposed to be.”

The good news, says psychologist Eagly, is that our culture’s views are always changing. And that includes our views on women, men and the meaning of leadership — whether in elected office or the workplace.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Carol Moseley Braun was the first African-American U.S. senator. She was in fact the first female African-American senator. An initial version of the podcast episode with the same error has been corrected.

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.


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Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: the Mothers of Modern Gynecology

anarcha-4cdd4b616830b906e48c20887a65333d0bb64d46-s800-c85For many modern women, the advancement of gynecology has improved the safety and experience of child birth.  I have had three children and the second two births were relatively easy.  When I listened to “Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology” on NPR’s podcast The Hidden Brain last week, I remembered the trauma I experienced with my first birth and my heart broke for these women and others whose names have been lost.  Their tormentor is celebrated in the history books as their suffering is largely forgotten and ignored.  And I know to some degree what their suffering was like.

When my labor began for my first child, nothing was happening the way I had learned to expect.  I had taken a birthing class, read several books, and watched countless episodes of A Baby Story.  I felt prepared.

A week before my due date, labor hit suddenly and hit hard, with contractions one minute apart from the get go and searing back pain.  We went to the birth center but were sent home because I had not dilated ‘enough.’  I was in agony all day, writhing in pain and throwing up.  When we came back that evening, I told the midwives I didn’t think I could manage without pain medication and I wanted to go to the hospital across the street, but they told me I could do it.  For the next ten hours, my contractions continued one minute apart, my back pain was unbearable, and I was getting increasingly weak.

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Josiah and I are survivors.

When hard labor hit, I pushed for nearly four hours, repeatedly begging to go to the hospital.  They insisted I was delivering a small baby and just needed to push harder.  The midwives kept whispering in the corner , excluding me and my husband and mother from their decision-making, and eventually decided I needed an episiotomy.  They cut me twice without anesthesia, telling me the next day that the scissors were dull.  I contracted, they cut, I screamed hysterically.  A minute later another contraction began and I begged them not to cut me again but they did.  At that point, I gave up entirely and began to fade away.  I was dying when they brought me to the hospital for care.  With pitocin and the nurses and midwives arguing over me, Josiah was born weighing 10 lbs 7 oz, and then the youngest midwife in training began stitching me up, taking an hour of tugging and pulling and pain.

My birth was traumatic and scary and when I began to die, I felt ready and eager to go.  My husband and mother were terrified they were losing me and Josiah right before their eyes.

When I listened to the NPR Hidden Brain podcast describing the horrific experimentation that several black slave women endured at the hands of the “Father of Modern Gynecology”, Dr. James Marion Sims, I couldn’t help but remember what it felt like to be cut and stitched without anesthesia.  My heart ached for them as I listened.  It is horrifying to realize that modern gynecology advanced at the expense of human lives, women who deserved dignity and care.  Today, we can honor them by acknowledging the injustice of their torture and sharing their story with others.

I encourage you to take a listen to this important episode here.


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