Thursday, July 27, 2017

Silencers: Hostile and benevolent sexism and how to tell the difference

If this blog has a mission beyond making sure everyone gets the skills they need to be a great public speaker, it's this: Women speakers, whether they're giving a speech or speaking up in a workplace meeting, need to know about the silencers being deployed against them, and how to get over, around, and through them. And Donald Trump's recent sexist ploys--one violently graphic about TV presenter Mika Brzezinski, one flirty and coy with Irish journalist Caitriona Perry--are good demonstrations of this very common technique.

In The logic of Trump's sexist attacks, you'll find an excellent analysis based on social psychology research:
The incidents are two sides of the same coin. Two decades ago, a pair of social psychologists, Susan Fiske and Peter Glick, distinguished between what they called “hostile” and “benevolent” sexism. Hostile sexism manifests itself in derogatory or threatening comments about a woman’s appearance, capacities, or behavior. Benevolent sexism, by contrast, manifests itself in praise or chivalry that nonetheless reaffirms a woman’s subordinate status. Telling your female coworker that she’s ugly is an expression of hostile sexism. Telling your female coworker that she’s pretty is an expression of benevolent sexism. Sexually assaulting a female colleague is an expression of hostile sexism. Suggesting that a female colleague needs help carrying her bags is an expression of benevolent sexism. Hostile sexism may be more antagonistic and aggressive but benevolent sexism also conveys the message that women should be valued for their appearance, and that they are not equal to men.
The more a woman conforms to traditional gender norms, the more likely she is to experience benevolent sexism. The more she threatens them, the more likely she is to experience hostile sexism. 
Though one is labeled "benevolent," neither type of sexism is kind or nice. The article goes on to note that both are expressions of male power. And I would add that they tend to have the effect of silencing women, for a variety of reasons. The man (or sometimes the woman) is counting on you to not "make things difficult" by objecting, and with benevolent sexism, may be trying to get you to thank him for doing it...so the focus is no longer on what you might want to say. You may not wish to draw the attention to yourself that the comments or action are drawing to you. You may just want it to stop. And you also know that bringing it up won't win you lots of friends, male or female. So you stay silent. In a hostile work environment, where benevolent and hostile sexism are rampant, you may silence yourself simply to avoid unwanted attention or being shut out of opportunity in the industry. This New York Times article on women in the tech industry coming forward about sexual harrassment puts it bluntly: "Saying anything, the women were warned, would lead to ostracism."

The author also shares why a focus on a woman's appearance--hair, makeup, facial or body features, and wardrobe--are effective as silencers, as we've seen recently with Hillary Clinton, Amal Clooney, and Angelina Jolie. From the article:
Viscerally, Trump likely understands what the research shows: that focusing people’s attention on a woman’s appearance makes them value her abilities less. For a 2009 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Nathan Heflick and Jamie Goldenberg asked one group of college students to write about Sarah Palin’s appearance and another to write about her “human essence.” Then both groups were asked a series of questions about her. The students who had written about her appearance rated her as less competent. In a different study, participants told to focus on Michelle Obama’s looks deemed her less competent, too.
Wonder no longer why U.S. Senators like Hillary Clinton or Kirsten Gillibrand have favored wearing the same black pantsuits over and over. They want their competency out front, not this brand of sexism.

This article quotes experts who say that hostile sexism can be a motivation for women to take action, but if it's persistent, it demoralizes them. So take immediate action, and call people on this behavior as it's occuring, eloquent women. And share this article on How not to advocate for a woman at work, which offers practical alternatives. 

(MSNBC photo of Morning Joe hosts Brzezinski and Scarborough)

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