Friday, November 02, 2007

Why Are NYT Articles on Gender Issues in the Workplace Always So Bad?

I really hate Lisa Belkin's "Life's Work" columns in the New York Times, and how they are always in the Fashion and Style Section.

I mean, I really, really hate them. I hate her writing, which is imprecise and conveys little substantive analysis. I hate her faux social science reporting, with its vague signifiers like "many" and "most." I hate her anecdotal sampling methodology, which confuses readers into thinking that her asking her friends may be generalizable to the wider population.

I hate the New York Times more and more for it's Fashion and Style Section, which is less Fashion, and more "styles," which apparently includes any article on women in politics, women in the workplace, and gender issues. Because that doesn't belong anywhere else in the paper. No, I am not of the persuasion that any attention is better than no attention at all to gender issues in the workplace.

How much do I hate thee, Lisa Belkin and the NYT?

See my previous post on Belkin and her article the alleged "Opt-Out Revolution" citing an article by Catherine Albiston lambasting Belkin on the "rhetoric of choice." Because guess what? Women decided two years later to opt back in!

In any case, there is yet another article by Belkin in yesterday's NY Times: The Feminine Critique (oooh, a play on Friedan). This article is mildly improved by its citation of real studies by real social scientists:

DON’T get angry. But do take charge. Be nice. But not too nice. Speak up. But don’t seem like you talk too much. Never, ever dress sexy. Make sure to inspire your colleagues — unless you work in Norway, in which case, focus on delegating instead.

Writing about life and work means receiving a steady stream of research on how women in the workplace are viewed differently from men. These are academic and professional studies, not whimsical online polls, and each time I read one I feel deflated. What are women supposed to do with this information? Transform overnight? And if so, into what? How are we supposed to be assertive, but not, at the same time?

Catalyst’s research is often an exploration of why, 30 years after women entered the work force in large numbers, the default mental image of a leader is still male. Most recent is the report titled “Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t,” which surveyed 1,231 senior executives from the United States and Europe. It found that women who act in ways that are consistent with gender stereotypes — defined as focusing “on work relationships” and expressing “concern for other people’s perspectives” — are considered less competent. But if they act in ways that are seen as more “male” — like “act assertively, focus on work task, display ambition” — they are seen as “too tough” and “unfeminine.”

Women can’t win.

Other researchers have reached similar conclusions. Joan Williams runs the Center for WorkLife Law, part of the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. She wrote the book “Unbending Gender” and she, too, has found that women are held to a different standard at work.

They are expected to be nurturing, but seen as ineffective if they are too feminine, she said in a speech last week at Cornell. They are expected to be strong, but tend to be labeled as strident or abrasive when acting as leaders. “Women have to choose between being liked but not respected, or respected but not liked,” she said.

But Professor Glick also concedes that much of this data — like his 2000 study showing that women were penalized more than men when not perceived as being nice or having social skills — gives women absolutely no way to “fight back.” “Most of what we learn shows that the problem is with the perception, not with the woman,” he said, “and that it is not the problem of an individual, it’s a problem of a corporation.”

Ms. Lang, at Catalyst, agreed. This accumulation of data will be of value only when companies act on it, she said, noting that some are already making changes. At Goldman Sachs, she said, the policy on performance reviews now tries to eliminate bias. A red flag is expected to go up if a woman is described as “having sharp elbows or being brusque,” she said. “The statement should not just stand,” she said. “Examples should be asked for, the context should be considered, would the same actions be cause for comment if it was a man?”

In fact, Catalyst’s next large project is to advise companies on ways they can combat stereotypical bias.

I am not a fan of this article, although the studies cited are interesting.

Also interesting is this response by Sarah Waldeck over at Concurring Opinions on advice to give to female law students.

In my next post, I'll go over how organizations may counteract cogntive biases.


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