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Ways that Males and Females are Treated Differently

In addition to the people who consciously believe women less capable, there are those who acknowledge that women can succeed at engineering but consider female engineers to be ``somehow suspect'' [Turkle 1984, page 200,]. I will examine several aspects of this problem: First, based on their preconceptions of women, people often exhibit subtle forms of subconscious bias that cause them to treat women differently from men. Second, men and women are often held to different standards. Strange as it sounds, behaviors --- such as succeeding --- are sometimes considered attractive in men but not in women. Third, there is something about our culture's view of male-dominated fields such as engineering that causes female aspirants to be considered unattractive.

Subtle Bias

  In [Sandler 1986,Sandler 1988,Hall 1982], there are summaries of several studies of subtle, subconscious bias --- that is, people observably acting in a biased manner but unaware of their doing so. I was apprised of the importance of subtle bias by the number of respondents who objected to my call for ``egregious examples'', writing that they thought the subtle behavior to be more damaging. [Hall 1982,Sandler 1988] report the following biases, of which both men and women are guilty:

As Sandler writes, ``Singly, these behaviors probably have little effect. But when they occur again and again, they give a powerful message to women: they are not as worthwhile as men nor are they expected to participate fully in class, in college, or in life at large'' [Sandler 1988, page 149,]. Unfortunately, the message appears to have sunk in. Studies have shown that, when engineering students are asked to predict the academic performance relative to that of male and female colleagues, ``both sexes anticipated that men would outperform women. This was paradoxical, since the average female student had both a higher grade point average and higher class rank from high school than the average male'' ([Ott 1975] in [Zappert et al 1984, page 4,]). Another study found that, when male and female college students were asked to predict their midterm test score before taking it, men had higher expectations for themselves than women did for themselves, even though the two groups actually performed the same [Erkut 1983, page 229,]. Studies have found that women are more likely than men to attribute success to luck instead of skill [Deaux et al 1974] and to attribute failure to lack of skill [Ernest 1976, page 599,]. Women's lack of confidence, and one consequence, is illustrated by an incident at Columbia, reported by Professor Joan Birman:  
I learned last year, to my astonishment, that for about four years running the honors calculus course had been all male, in spite of the fact that admission was based on an open competitive examination. This fall, one of the senior mathematics majors and myself made an intensive effort to encourage women to try the exam! The typical answer was, `I know I won't pass it,' --- to which we replied over and over, `Well , if you try it, at worst you will confirm what you already know, and only an hour of time will have been lost.' After three days of such advising, the big day came, the exam was given, and this year the class has five men and five women! [Ernest 1976, page 604,].

Not surprisingly, girls at single-sex schools study physical science and math more than in comparable coed schools, ``even though girls' schools frequently have less adequate laboratory provision than mixed schools'' [Kelly 1982, page 497,]

Even more ominously, [Sandler 1986, page 6,] reports:

In one study, first done in 1968 and then replicated in 1983, college students were asked to rate identical articles according to specific criteria. The authors' names attached to the articles were clearly male or female, but were reversed for each group of raters: what one group thought had been written by a male, the second group thought had been written by a female, and vice versa. Articles supposedly written by women were consistently ranked lower than when the very same articles were thought to have been written by a male [Goldberg 1968,Paludi et al 1985,Paludi et al 1983]. In a similar study, department chairs were asked to make hypothetical hiring decisions and to assign faculty rank on the basis of vita. For vitae with male names, chairs recommended the rank of associate professor; however, the identical vita with a female name merited only the rank of assistant professor [Fidell 1975].
Anti-female bias is strongest in traditionally male fields [Top 1991, pages 96--97,].

When discussing the results of such studies with fellow students, I found that the males have tended to be more surprised than the females, because many females recalled specific instances of biased behavior, several categories of which are represented below.

In some cases, a woman was viewed as less serious than a man in a similar position:

Different Expectations for Men and Women

The following examples show how people sometimes expect women to be less interested or competent in technical areas than they actually are:

These diverse examples illustrate how women are sometimes treated as less capable or interested in technology than men, instead of being treated as individuals. Of course, there exist professors and administrators who treat their male and female students equally as well or even devote extra effort to encouraging women. However, negative events are still common enough to be of substantial concern. Moreover, the above behaviors are the symptom of a more fundamental problem: lower expectations for females. Many of the above events are too blatant to have the insidious effect of subtle discrimination (which probably accompany them). Even if the perpetrators could be coerced into not so openly displaying sexism, it would not eliminate the fundamental biases which would be displayed less directly.

Different Standards for Men and Women

As Sandler writes, the same behavior is viewed differently in women than in men:

He is `assertive'; she is `aggressive' or `hostile'. He `lost his cool', implying it was an aberration; she's `emotional' or `menopausal'. Thus, her behavior is devalued, even when it is the same as his [Sandler 1988, page 151,].
This claim can be illustrated by a recent lawsuit by a woman who ``repeatedly heard that she had not been given a partnership at [a] huge accounting firm because she was too macho, universally disliked and in need of `a course at charm school''' [Lewin 1990]. This is despite having brought in more business than any of the other 88 candidates for partnership. ``Comments from the lawsuit [say] that she should wear makeup and jewelry and learn to walk, talk and dress `more femininely''' [Lewin 1990]. A survey of female scientists found:
Most think their male colleagues are more forceful and aggressive than they themselves want to be; some have resigned themselves to low status rather than changing their personalities, while others have decided to fight with men's weapons --- and are often labeled unfeminine as a result [Ferry et al 1982, page 30,].

One study found the same behavior judged more harshly in female professors than in males:

[According to] Susan Kay's classroom studies... male students were far more likely to give lower ratings to those female faculty perceived to be hard graders... This finding is consistent with a series of experiments at the University of Dayton that indicated that college students of both sexes judged female authority figures who engaged in punitive behavior more harshly than they judged punitive males... ([Martin 1984, pages 484--485,] in [Koblitz 1990]).
See also [Kierstead et al 1988] and [Bennett 1982].

A ``halo'' effect seems to exist where people tend to interpret behavior according to their preconceptions. The same action is often interpreted differently, depending on whether it is performed by a woman or a man, as the following stories illustrate:

These examples are troubling because they show one way in which stereotypes are perpetuated. In each case, someone interpreted the actions of a woman based on their prejudices, reinforcing their own stereotypes.

Additionally, women at American universities are often the victims of other cultures' stereotypes. Foreign nationals outnumber Americans as students in doctoral engineering programs [Widnall 1988, page 1740,], and there are many foreign-born professors. In one survey, female graduate students at MIT ``reported that foreign-educated faculty --- many from cultures where women are not held in high esteem --- pose problems for women in graduate programs, both in class and in research'' ([MIT 1987] in [Baum 1990, page 49,]).

Career-Related Success Unfeminine

Not only are some strong traits considered unfeminine, but ``femininity and individual achievement continue to be viewed as two desirable but mutually exclusive ends,'' a shocking position argued in [Horner 1970, page 46,], based on empirical research and interviews. In one of Horner's studies, females were given the sentence ``After first-term finals, Anne finds herself at the top of her medical school class.'' Males were given a similar sentence with a male name. Subjects were asked to write a story about the student. While only 8 of the 88 male subjects exhibited fear of success through negative stories, 59 of the 90 females did. Horner divides the negative stories into three categories and includes sample stories, of which I include a subset:

  1. Fear of Rejection --- ``Anne doesn't want to be number one in her class. She feels she shouldn't rank so high because of social reasons. She drops down to ninth in the class and then marries the boy who graduates number one.''
  2. Concern about Normalcy or Femininity --- ``Anne is completely ecstatic but at the same time feels guilty. She wishes that she could stop studying so hard, but parental and personal pressures drive her. She will finally have a nervous breakdown and marry a successful young doctor.''
  3. Denial --- ``Anne is really happy she's on top, though Tom is higher than she --- though that's as it should be.... Anne doesn't mind Tom winning'' [Horner 1970, pages 60--62,].
Additionally, when questioned about Anne, ``[m]ore than 70% ... described Anne as having an unattractive face, figure, or manners'' [Horner 1970, page 63,]. Females thus consider success to lessen their femininity, a sacrifice many are not willing to make [Horner 1970, pages 69--72,]. See also [Mednick et al 1975].

This attitude can also be illustrated by the following incident, reported in [Franklin et al 1981, page 20,]:

One woman earned high grades in a traditionally male field. Her professor announced to a mostly male class that this represented an unusual achievement `for a woman' and was an indication, first, that the woman student was probably not really feminine, and, second, that the males in the class were not truly masculine, since they allowed a woman to beat them.

Instead, the proper area for a woman's success is seen as her ability to attract high-status men. In a study for the National Institute of Education, researchers Holland and Eisenhart found:

Men's prestige and correlated attractiveness come from the attention they receive from women and from success at sports, in school politics, and in other arenas. Women's prestige and correlated attractiveness come only from the attention they receive from men [Holland 1990, page 104, emphasis in original,].
This attitude is exemplified by the way one college woman attempted to insult another: ``[You] may be able to do calculus, but I'm dating a football player'' [Holland 1990, page 104, brackets in original,]. The study found that female friends often did not even know each other's majors [Holland 1990, page 14,], although they spent large amounts of time together discussing other matters, primarily boyfriends [Holland 1990, page 14,].

Implications of Gender Double Standards

The double standards discussed above should be a significant concern. Aggression, competitiveness, and even some brashness are necessary for a graduate student, for example, who must compete with other students for equipment, funding, and attention from professors. One doesn't get far by politely waiting to be noticed or for other people to stop using the computer. In her paper on being a female graduate student at MIT, Candace Sidner addresses some stumbling blocks women face:

Receiving an advanced degree, in fact, any degree, from MIT is rather like being admitted to a fraternity. One has a certain set of rituals to go through, and both the process and one's performance define one's position in the fraternity in the years that follow....

It surprises no woman to say that women are socialized differently than men in our cultures. What is surprising is the effect of that socialization when women take roles traditionally held only by men. The most significant role change centers [on] developing confidence and competence. Part of the process of hurdle jumping is not just the getting over, it is the form which one presents in doing it. For the MIT fraternity ritual, the form is confidence; a woman student must use what I call strutting behavior, that is, she must look and act like she knows what she is doing.

While developing confidence from accompanying competence, is difficult for all initiates, for women there is a subtle, but remarkable difference; women in the everyday world are not supposed to appear very confident and competent.... As a result, women must not only build and show confidence and competence, just as their male counterparts do, but unlike the men, they must decide first to unlearn their normal behavior patterns....

The strutting behavior appears slowly; there are stops and starts, forward and backward progress. A woman student begins to act from a little bit of confidence in her competence, and tests out this confidence among her peers and superiors. Two more difficulties follow. First, a woman feels less feminine, because in fact she is less feminine according to the prevailing behavior patterns. In her personal life, her feelings may be communicated to her partner(s) who may find her less attractive. This threatens her personal status. Eventually a woman can learn to find personal friends who value her confident image, but the time in between is frightening [Sidner 1980, pages 2--3,].

Empirically, a comparative study of male and female Stanford graduate students in technical areas [Zappert et al 1984] found that women were less self-confident and assertive than their male peers:

[W]omen less frequently than men reported that they felt free to disagree with their advisors...and that their ideas were respected by their advisors [Zappert et al 1984, page 9,]....

[W]omen more often reported having trouble saying ``no'' and in giving criticism. Women also more often reported having difficulty sticking up for themselves and tended to let annoyances pile up [Zappert et al 1984, page 12,].

Specific Stereotypes Against Female Engineers

As if the culture-wide inhibitions to success were not enough, there are additional barriers in engineering. Nowadays, high school girls from middle- and upper-middle-class families are expected to go to college and to do reasonably well, but going to a technical institute or majoring in a technical field is still considered unfeminine, as these anecdotes indicate:

It is worth repeating, however, that the stereotype of male engineers is almost as bad. Jokes and television portray male engineers as unattractive, unpopular, awkward, and either unsuccessful with or uninterested in women.gif However, I believe that in our culture, females are more susceptible to such stereotypes. This is in large part because, as described earlier in this chapter, femininity is considered to be at odds with success, while masculinity is not.

While the stereotype that female engineers are inherently unattractive seems to be without rational basis, scientific fields may well be in conflict with some values traditionally thought of as feminine and currently held by a majority of females. The situation seems not to have changed since the following was written:

I think [women's lack of achievement] comes from the general orientation of girls, young women, and even older women, toward `others' (in David Reisman's sense of being `other directed'). Women are constantly urged to consider `Am I doing the right thing?' and `What shall I be or do that will please my husband, children, and parents?' Occupational success never comes out as the positive answer to these questions. Pleasing others and doing the `right thing' always means holding back, and retreating from a position of strong ambition and career commitment [Epstein 1974, page 15,].
I would add that being other-directed might steer women away from objective sciences into the humanities and the more people-oriented social sciences. Thus, the values that are encouraged in women would not only make them less career-oriented but more likely to avoid the sciences. 

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Next: Summary Up: Societal Factors Previous: Stereotyping