Unconscious Sexism PotPourri


There’s plenty of evidence that whatever women say or do, it’s perceived differently (and more negatively) than when men say or do the very same things.

Here’s one example.  Last night, my friend Atrios put up a post wondering why Hillary Clinton’s people (in other words, her surrogates, in other words, that woman) are “so cranky.”  In spite of my query, Atrios didn’t provide a link or an example of what he was talking about — maybe we’re just all supposed to understand and agree about how cranky that woman is.  There was some speculation that maybe he was referring to this story about “a senior Clinton aide’s sharp take on Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT):  ‘tone it down’ or ‘fuck him.’  Reflecting on Clinton’s double-digit victory, the anonymous senior aide told Politico:  ‘We kicked ass tonight,’ adding, ‘I hope this convinces Bernie to tone it down. If not, fuck him.'”  Atrios’ other comments went to how it may actually be good for Clinton for Sanders to stay in the race, and I’ll concede that maybe  “or fuck him” could be taken to mean “or he should drop out of the race,” although I think it probably meant “or fuck him,” —as in, “or fuck him.”  If you think that’s cranky talk for campaign aides, you have SO not been involved in any campaigns.

To be honest, I’m not aware that, at least until this Tuesday, there’s been much of an outcry at all from Clinton’s supporters for Sanders to drop out.  Certainly, there’s been nothing like the outcry in 2008 from then-Senator Obama’s supporters who began early and often to demand that Clinton drop out.  Her staying in the race was costing him money, weakening him, preventing him from pivoting to the Republicans, and, whenever she criticized him, even indirectly, that was a HUGE problem, providing grist for the Republicans during the general election.  If she suggested that, who knew, anything could happen, that was portrayed (in what even President Obama has said was an unfair manner) as a racist wish for his assassination.  I seem to remember even my friend Atrios jumping on that bandwagon.  In the end, I think that most of even-the-loudest voices came around to the notion that it actually helped Obama for Clinton to stay in the race until the end.  And I and the other Clinton supporters I know have been quite careful to say, “Yes, –Senator Sanders has a right to stay in as long as he wants.”  I suspect that Sanders staying in the race may help Democrats on down-ticket races, if nothing else, because if his supporters stay home, those votes won’t happen.  Maybe there’s some huge groundswell I’ve missed, but, in fact, Clinton’s supporters seem to me to have been far less “cranky” about Sanders staying in the race than Obama’s supporters were about Clinton.

And, it’s odd, after the last few weeks, for anyone to call Clinton cranky.

Senator Sanders started out running an issues-based campaign, graciously even announcing at a debate that no one cared about Secretary Clinton’s emails (although that was shortly after she’d endured and risen victorious from an 11-hour Star Chamber about her emails).  But in the last few weeks, the Sanders campaign has turned distinctly cranky:  warning Clinton not to let her ambition tear apart the Democratic party (which is rich because, you know, Sanders has often run against Democrats), calling Clinton unqualified to be president (then retracting that, then saying that she just had bad judgment), calling her supporters (and, by extension, her) “Democratic whores,” (and then retracting that), protesting fundraisers where she was raising money for down-ticket races (and throwing one dollar bills at her — a classic way to call a woman a cheap whore), and bitching and moaning that all the rules that have been in place for months were somehow unfair to poor Bernie and were somehow Clinton’s fault — a position to which, to be fair, Atrios objected).

So when, after that, Clinton beats Sanders even on his own home block in Brooklyn and one of her senior aides defends her and says that Sanders needs to either tone down his attacks on her or fuck him, then it’s Clinton who’s cranky.  What is she supposed to do?  Ignore his attacks?  We saw how well ignoring the Swift Boat attacks worked for John Kerry.  This is classic damned-if-she-does-damned-if-she-doesn’t sexism.  If she (and her surrogates are an extension of her, here) won’t or can’t defend herself, then how will she defend America against the Islamic State or Putin?  How will she ever handle Donald Trump in the debates?  Is she scared to throw a punch?  Is she weak?  But if she does defend herself, she’s cranky.  What a bitch!  How dare she pick on that avuncular old man, St. Bernard of the Snows?

Look, I think Atrios is one of the most feminist men in the blogosphere.  But unconscious gender bias/sexism affects everyone in America — everyone — and certainly white men.  I’d really love it if Clinton’s campaign and presidency could lead to some examination of how that unconscious sexism affects how we perceive it when women, oh, say, defend themselves.

Here’s another example.  We all know about mansplaining.  A recent New York Times article discussed the “manologue”:

The manologue takes many forms, but is characterized by the proffering of words not asked for, of views not solicited[,] and of arguments unsought. It is underwritten by the doubtful assumption that the audience will naturally be interested, and that this interest will not flag. And that when it comes to speeches or commentary, longer is better.

The prevalence of the manologue is deeply rooted in the fact that men take, and are allocated, more time to talk in almost every professional setting. Women self-censor, edit, apologize for speaking. Men expound.

The really interesting finding, in terms of our topic — how women’s actions are perceived differently from the same actions by men — is this:

It is also clear that the more powerful men become, the more they speak. This would seem a natural correlation, but the same is not true for women. The reason for this, according to a Yale study, is because women worry about “negative consequences” — that is, a backlash — if they are more voluble. Troublingly, the study found that their fears were well founded, as both male and female listeners were quick to think these women were talking too much, too aggressively. In other words, men are rewarded for speaking, while women are punished.  (emphasis mine).

I’ve seen Clinton criticized for going on, and on, and on at debates.  Of course, the way that you win a debate is to dominate the conversation, getting in all of your points and preventing your opponent from getting in hir points.  But, due to unconscious sexism, women are punished for the very behaviors that win debates.  Again, this is damned-if-she-does-damned-if-she-doesn’t sexism.  If Hillary can’t dominate a debate with Sanders, how can she stand up to Trump or Putin?  But if she does, she’s a shrill old woman, droning on and on.

Here’s a final example.   The Harvard Business Review has an article that documents the fact that we unconsciously punish women, more than men, for making errors in judgement.  I’ve long been puzzled at the vehemence of the insistence that Hillary can’t be the liberal choice for president because “she voted for the war.”  (Insert requisite disclaimer that I was against the war and wish she’d voted against it.)  The same people who say this had little problem getting over the fact that John Kerry and John Edwards also “voted for the war,” and that Kerry and Edwards, like Clinton, later said they regretted that vote.  The same people had no trouble supporting Obama (“I’m not a member of the anti-war left.”) and they gladly voted for him in 2012, despite his continued drone strikes and other war mongering.  (And, of course, again, there’s the damned-if-she-does-damned-if-she-doesn’t sexism.  If Clinton hadn’t voted for the war, she’d be “too weak to be Commander in Chief.”  That’s not a criticism likely to have stuck to John Swift Boat Kerry, but he still voted for the war and was forgiven for that.) But Clinton, well SHE VOTED FOR THE WAR! and so can never be the Democratic nominee.  The recent HBR article offers an explanation:

Victoria Brescoll, a social psychologist at Yale School of Management who studies gender stereotypes, was curious how people evaluate women who make mistakes in traditionally male occupations. She and her colleagues gave participants a fictional news story about a police chief in a major city preparing for a big protest rally. Several hours in, the protest got out of hand and the chief dispatched squad cars. In one version of the story, the chief didn’t send enough officers, and twenty-five people were seriously injured.

Did it matter whether the police chief who made the bad call was male or female? It did. When a male police chief found himself with twenty-five injured civilians, his rating as an effective chief dropped by roughly 10 percent. When a female police chief made the same mistake, her ratings dropped by almost 30 percent. Participants reading the story also wanted to demote her, but their counterparts did not want to demote him. Both leaders made a risky decision that backfired, but it cost her more.

In another version of the story, the protest was successfully pacified when the chief sent in the squad cars. No one was injured and the protest didn’t escalate. In that version, participants gave both leaders high marks, which means a female leader wasn’t automatically seen as a poor fit — just when she experienced a perceived failure.

Brescoll and her team looked at two other traditionally male jobs with considerable power – the CEO of an engineering firm and the chief judge of a state supreme court. The pattern persisted. A decision that backfired led to harsher scrutiny for female leaders than for men.

Again, these anti-woman judgements are unconscious. I don’t believe that the people who made them said to themselves, “Let’s see.  I am a sexist and am against rights for women so I’ll make a choice that will show women being judged more harshly.”  It’s just what happens when you grow up soaking in Patriarchy.  But what you CAN do is to recognize that you live in this toxic stew and go back and reconsider your statements and judgments in light of that fact.

If you’re a man and you’re just sick and tired of hearing about how EVERY FUCKING THING involves sexism, I understand you.  I do.  You poor baby; here, put your feet up and let me get you a drink.  Can you, for just one moment, imagine how we women feel, living in it every minute of every day?  Can you, just for one moment, imagine how we feel, regularly gaslighted by a culture that tells us that we just need to “lean in,” but not too far; and that it’s our fault if we don’t succeed because we didn’t find that impossible fine line between being too aggressive and being aggressive enough; and that if only we hadn’t ever made any single mistake, even though when a man makes that mistake it shows daring and aggression and boldness, we’d certainly get ahead; and how even a woman who graduated from Wellesley and Yale Law School, was a partner in a major law firm, was First Lady, was a Senator, and was Secretary of State is “unqualified,” and how if we could only just not be so cranky . . . .

Yes.  I’m cranky.  I’m sixty years old and I’m more tired of this than you are.

GIF found here.


4 responses to “Unconscious Sexism PotPourri

  1. Jane Gagle-Bennett

    Thanks for writing this – I was surprised and a bit hurt by Atrios’ comment – just thought he wasn’t as afflicted by those male blinders as others around the blue place.

  2. I’m disappointed by this. You’ve slyly turned Atrios’ post about campaign surrogates into an attack on Clinton herself and on her gender. While they were simply patronizing before, their comments to the press have taken on a distinct tone of annoyance and imperiousness at Sanders’ insurgent, grassroots campaign. There are so many legitimate cases of gender bias. This is not one of them.

  3. In that very comment thread another woman called me out literally by name and took away my voting franchise. Said Oregon, California, all of us who haven’t voted yet should back off and quit supporting him. What kind of feminism is that? Does she not realized we in Oregon are also voting for our Secretary of State and other Democratic candidates? I’ve been a registered Democrat for 40 years and voted in every election, but somehow I’m not supposed to vote in Oregon, a closed primary state? Wow.

  4. Thank you for writing this.

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