Cameron’s post resonated with a lot of thoughts I’ve been having lately, about gender and politics and wider inequality and essentially living a life I can bear, even if it’s not strictly about all of these things. The following passages in particular really spoke to me, in the same way Carol Tavris’ “but the point is to direct our attention to the straitjacket, not its dutiful wearer” did a few years ago:
What happens when people talk is affected by group dynamics. The speakers who contribute most aren’t always the ones who behave most assertively; often they’re the ones who get most support from other people. They are able to gain and hold onto the floor—without needing to act like jerks—because others invite them to speak, listen attentively to what they say, ask them questions and make responses which encourage them to continue.It’s possible that the connection will only make sense in my head, but this is essentially what I was getting at the other day when I wrote about the film Pride and the importance of solidarity and support. Over the years I’ve come to resent hyper-individualised advice to “be assertive”, “try harder” and “put myself out there”, even if I know there are a few (fewer than is generally acknowledged) specific circumstances where it can be useful. I don’t know how to find a way to work towards meaningful change within a rigged social system while acknowledging that urging specific individuals (often quiet women like me) to go against the grain of their personality and risk social backlash isn’t really the answer. It becomes a double-bind: if we do it, there are consequences. If we don’t, suddenly the blame is shifted to us.
A study of the performance evaluations given to men and women in the IT industry found that women’s evaluations, but not men’s, frequently included criticisms of their ‘abrasive’ manner. Like ‘bossy’ and ‘strident’ (also words which are rarely applied to men), ‘abrasive’ is code for ‘she talks too much/too forcefully’. It’s a clear double standard: what’s acceptable in men becomes a problem when women do it. This is one reason why advice to be more assertive can backfire. It also suggests that women who don’t speak up may not have a problem with assertiveness at all. Some may be choosing not to compete directly with men, because they think the costs outweigh the benefits.
The way girls and women police their own and each other’s behaviour is another factor that contributes to the problem. Criticizing individuals is not the answer; what we need to do is address the conditions that make their behaviour a rational choice. [Emphasis mine.]
I do know one thing, though: a systemic analysis helps, because it can potentially inoculate us against feelings of self-blame and inadequacy that can have a really damaging effect. I’ve been thinking a lot about different circumstances in my life when I felt I could or couldn’t speak up or take action — the dynamics were similar regardless of whether it was about engaging in activism, raising my hand at a meeting, finding the motivation to continue writing, or speaking up about harassment. I felt paralysed, small and ashamed whenever I internalised toxic messages that equated speaking up solely with prestigious individual traits like courage, strength or conviction, and which ignored that not doing so is very often a rational, sensible choice based on a careful analysis of costs and benefits that’s well-grounded in facts — in short, it’s a direct result of how vulnerable you are and how much you can afford to risk. I gave up whenever I was told it was me who was at fault and took that message to heart. Conversely, I felt empowered whenever I happened to have access to networks of support that counterbalanced or at the very least minimised such risks.
I don’t know where to go from here except to try my best to be generous and consistent in offering encouragement to others and in amplifying their voices.
Support is everything. This is my new life motto.
Writing the fairy tale–based poems in my collection Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty helped me make sense of the ugliness around and inside of me without losing hope. I plunged into the wolf’s belly and eventually emerged feeling…what? Not unscathed. Not triumphant. Not like I have all the answers. More like I’m glad I asked the questions and like I might just have the courage to keep asking.
I’ll be back soon with actual bookish thoughts (and an excessively long post on The Wire, probably.)