Monday, May 23, 2022

Professional Women and Informality

I had started a post about academic women behaving in what I thought was an embarrassing fashion. I had been collecting examples in some irritation over the last couple of months.  Once you notice something enough to put a name to it, you start to see it more frequently. Yet I also was consciously looking for examples of men doing this as well. Are men doing the same thing, engaging in some sort of Bro talk with each other on these podcasts and I'm just not picking it up? Are these actually politically slanted rather than gendered, of liberals all a-twitter about meeting powerful liberal men? Is this something performative that their male-dominated academic circles force them into slowly, invisibly over the years of their school successes?  What exactly is happening here?  

I don't have anything like a full answer, just some information based on the (many) professional women I have worked with and how their responses were not always like the men's, plus listening to an abundance of podcasts on a fairly narrow range of topics at this point. (Literature; anthropology and archaeology; genetics; prehistory, ancient history, and medieval and renaissance history; economics and international economics; Inklings; probably a few other things.  I don't want to give the impression that I cover those topics in any sort of systematic completeness.  Pretty random.  But I did want to mention that I can't generalise beyond these things.)

The occasion was what I thought of as schoolgirl giggling, which I thought not quite right for a serious discussion.  Two women were talking about what sex was really like in the Middle Ages, and it was a tone I recognised from psych students at the hospital, almost showing off how adult they were by being able to talk about sex*, while not really doing that in an adult fashion. A couple of days later, there were three women about to discuss a Roman burial site in England, but in the introductory two got distracted by the news of a younger sister's wedding. A few days out, and other women were talking about one getting to meet a powerful political figure and the other remarking how exciting that was. Okay, maybe that's just less exciting if you are from NH, so that may be unfair of me.  But another show the next day - completely different professors/researchers - got started with the topic by going over what each had been doing since they last spoke, and one related that she had gotten to meet (star recognisable even by me, prominently liberal) and even gotten to shake his hand. It was the two back-to-back that alerted me, perhaps. But I've listened for about three weeks.  Few people, male or female, have shown this. People are talking about cultural covid responses between countries and status groups, and that's what they talk about. Anything that smacked of sex or romance or widely popular people was merely noted offhandedly.  But there were a few exceptions.

I thought at first the exceptions were all females, but looking over my shows I realised there is one quite major exception to that rule, a three-man podcast that I no longer listen to for exactly this reason.  The first part of every episode was taken up with talk about fiances and what they were doing, and many episodes had fanboy stuff about the important CS Lewis/GK Chesterton/JRR Tolkien people they had met at conferences or in the past. 

I was jumping to conclusions, but thought I must be missing something. Getting an advanced degree and getting yourself hired by prestigious institutions requires a fairly high minimum of social awareness about those cultures. They clearly aren't stupid, they don't seem irresponsible - what's up?  I compared their behavior to that of the many professional women I had worked with. One pattern I had seen repeated over many years occurred to me. When meeting a new psychiatrist or PhD psychologist, it is polite to address them as "Doctor" until you get some signal otherwise. Some prefer you address them as such for as long as you know them. Few males give you permission to address them by their first name, and nearly all of those are young. Some doctors big on camaraderie will take abbreviated monikers like "Dr. K." I think about half the females will quickly say "Call me Linda." I always pushed back on this and would give my explanation. Because it is nearly always some females being addressed by their first names and males being called Doctor, the hospital-wide culture was that male doctors were addressed more respectfully, and I didn't want to buy into that.** They would look a touch surprised , and sometimes grin and say "Well that's very nice. Thank you. But call me Linda." Light laughter.

I have preliminary observations but zero real data. What I see might be skewed from the start by my field, or false perspective, or my age or region or six other things.  Insights appreciated. Tentatively, this is what I have got.

1. It is much more common in younger women.

2. It occurs when only women are in the conversation - which has odd twists buried in it when one considers that a podcast has both male and female listeners. Men actually are present in some sense. I would suspect that topics that appealed more to women might show this even more strongly. Don't know. 

2A. It would occur occasionally at work in a situation where it was a female-dominated team culture, even if males were sometimes present.  Psychiatric teams are mixed, but percentage higher female over male in the main, because some common groups - nurses, social workers, occupational therapists - were predominantly female. The MD's,  the attorneys, the physical therapists, the psychologists - those are more 50-50.

3. On the one male-only podcast where this chit-chat smoothing occurred, only one of the men was employed as an academic. He engaged in it much less.  Another was a writer and the third a statistician. Maybe that matters.

4. It occurs mostly at the beginning of the podcast or the team meeting, during a light introductory phase that men are more likely to skip when it's their circus.

5. I may be imagining this or borrowing over from observing the female psychologists or attorneys I knew live, but I can sense that some of the older academic women are rather impatient with this and are quick to steer the conversation to the intended point.

6. I humorously note it even occurs at the frequent social gathering of four couples that is founded on a Bible study we shared for decades. We all used to sit at the same table or in a large circle of chairs and sofas.  Now the men and women immediately split and have very different conversations. ("What did you think of the article I sent you this week?") My wife has occasionally wished she were in the men's conversation when she overhears a line or two.

Well, it's interesting.  There seems to be something more common in female culture that it is important to set a tone of friendliness and caring about who you are and what is happening to you. That doesn't seem especially blamable, though it doesn't much appeal to me.  When men control the culture it may be that some women (not all, clearly) find it...what?  Distant? Chilly? Unsupportive? Yet men rather obviously can do this in situations they perceive

I have to figure that someone in linguistics or one of the social sciences has filmed a few thousand hours of this stuff and drawn conclusions. There is likely to be some awareness of code-switching of when this can take place and when it can't.

* I thought of Jane Studdock from That Hideous Strength. 

** I have also wondered whether this subtly changes the power dynamics in the building. An occasional woman would complain over the years about promotions going unequally to males. I never said it aloud as it would sound accusing and unsympathetic, but I did wonder if embracing this chumminess worked against them. 


Donna B. said...

My first thought is that a certain type of informality is strictly enforced in workplaces dominated by women.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Interesting! That sends me down a new path of how I survived but did not thrive in that environment, relying on on finding niches within the organisation; and also why there were some women I did not like but liked working with or vice versa. They were on the outside of woman-culture and scrambling socially but functioning otherwise, or they were entirely comfortable in it but not effective workers. It's fun to go over in my mind how many of them were liked or disliked by other women.

bs king said...

There is some research to suggest that we put a higher expectations on professional women to manage the feelings of those they are speaking to than there are of men. Two studies come to mind. The first was about performance reviews at a big tech company, where they found only 2 out of 83 men got negative reviews about their tone/abrasiveness but 71 out of 93 women did. I'm sure there are possibly methodology issues, but it is hard to imagine that women in tech are REALLY that much more socially problematic than the men. Other studies have had similar findings. Women are coached A LOT on how to appear less threatening/blunt/assertive/more pleasant.

The second is that even with objective work, when someone believes they are speaking to a woman they up their expectations about what the woman will do for them. There was a great study done where they had a few professors (some male, some female) teach online classes under their own names and then a gender swapped name, then compared their ratings. The professors believed to be male got better ratings, even on objective things like "time it took to return work".

This likely relates to idle chit chat because IIRC, it's generally accepted that we make small talk to give a "I am on your side" type sign. I can say my professional career became MUCH easier when I got more adept at this type of talk.

It likely would be annoying on a podcast, but I suspect that's at least some of where it comes from.

David Foster said...

"There is some research to suggest that we put a higher expectations on professional women to manage the feelings of those they are speaking to than there are of men. Two studies come to mind. The first was about performance reviews at a big tech company, where they found only 2 out of 83 men got negative reviews about their tone/abrasiveness but 71 out of 93 women did."

I wonder what the mix of such negative comments was, depending on the sex of the manager doing the reviewing?

David Foster said...

There are a lot of men who do engage in a lot of chit-chat on the job...although different from female chit-chat...especially men in blue collar jobs, I think.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

To David foster's first comment about BHethany's comment - among female nurses, social workers, and other team members talking about doctors, who are the default team leader, my experience is opposite - though note that this is the evaluation from below rather than the evaluation from above, which may matter - perhaps even sharply opposite. They tear down male doctors for their attitudes quite mercilessly but do not frequently have criticism of the females, unless it comes to a big issue, in which case the female doctor is excoriated. Let me think about how that plays out with administrators.

bs king said...

AVI - if I'm reading the situation correctly, that's also behind the back criticism rather than that delivered face to face or in a formal/documented manner. Having had to facilitate a few mediation type sessions over the years I'll note that many of the sharpest tongues change their tune when they're not just around those who agree with them. I'll also say I've worked on some surveys where people verbally said they were miserable and then none of their rankings matched that sentiment. People are REALLY strange about such things once they have to go "on record" in some fashion.

To David Foster's comment, it doesn't appear they noted the mix of the managers. I took a look at a few similar papers and couldn't find it there either, though I'll keep an eye out. Anecdotally I haven't seen a pattern based on manager gender, but I have seen a pattern that managers often believe that the difficult conversation/conflict resolution style that works for them should work for you. Actually one of my favorite managers was a 6'4" former marine who actually said to me "yeah, people react to me really differently than they react to you. I spend most of my time making sure people aren't intimidated by me, you don't have that problem. You're going to have to find your own style." I try to repeat some version of that to people I supervise now. Getting a good sense of why you're not getting where/what you want and how to fix it is a pretty valuable skill regardless of gender.

engineerlite said...

In the last 20 years of my professional experience in an engineering dominated company, the management instituted a very strong diversity program (m/f), such that gender played a dominant role in hiring and promotions. After a relatively short period of hiring females with minimal qualifications, while only hiring white guys who were all stars, the distribution of competence was striking. Within the female engineers, the competence distribution was fairly bell-shaped, ranging from very competent to not. As managers, the style of females tracked their engineering competence level … those high on that scale tended to be narrowly work-focused, concise, objective, with a minimum of social interaction (and sensitivity). Those low on the competence scale were very touch-feely, informal, imprecise, easily distracted from technical issues, often settling for less than optimal technical solutions.

Grim said...

When I was in my MA program, I took a part time job at the local library's research desk because it gave me access to many useful resources and plenty of paid time to work on my own research, with only occasional requests for help. I think, aside from the library director, I was the only male working there.

One of the issues I remember was that we were issued nametags with our first names on them. I asked for mine to read "Mr." and my last name. This request was initially granted, but it bothered the women so much that they asked me to switch to a nametag with both names. "That will give the choice of what to call you to the person addressing you," my supervisor explained, which was exactly what I hadn't wanted to do: they don't know me, and should therefore not address me in a familiar manner. "It's more collegial," I was also told, which was silly: I had no objection to my colleagues calling me by my first name, which they knew perfectly well without a nametag. It was the idea that perfect strangers should walk up to me and address me as if we were old friends.

These days I doubt I'd be bothered by it, though it's been since then that I wore a nametag at work. I was a lot closer to my Southern upbringing back then, with its insistence on formalities and respect. Still, it aligns with your and Donna's observations. In the only female-dominated workplace I ever worked in, there was real pressure to abandon titles and formalities and adopt informalities instead.

stevo said...

In my experience, a good sign that the office has skewed too far female is the celebration of birthdays at work.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Or secret santas.

I am fine with baby showers. That's a real big event. I would be okay with some wedding recognition, but the women where I worked very much got into giving lingerie and joke sexy presents. I thought it inappropriate to attend. Actually, I'm not even sure I was invited, so maybe no problem there.

Ganzir said...

"Two women were talking about what sex was really like in the Middle Ages"

What's to differ between then and now? Ya put it in; ya pull it out.

Ganzir said...

"I am fine with baby showers. That's a real big event. I would be okay with some wedding recognition, but the women where I worked very much got into giving lingerie and joke sexy presents. I thought it inappropriate to attend. Actually, I'm not even sure I was invited, so maybe no problem there."

Next time you can ask me to attend for you.