Analysis: To Be a Woman, Or Not To Be a Woman

Analysis of a recent study that found that women who believed in focusing on men’s and women’s similarities (“gender blindness”) felt greater power and confidence than women who advocated celebrating women’s distinctive qualities (“gender awareness”).

[MM_Access_Decision access=’false’]In a recent study from researchers Ashley Martin, an incoming assistant professor at Stanford, and Katherine Phillips, a Columbia professor, it was found that women who believed in focusing on men’s and women’s similarities (“gender blindness”) felt greater power and confidence than women who advocated celebrating women’s distinctive qualities (“gender awareness”).

The researchers’ conclusion: Women benefit when they downplay gender. An excellent interview with the researchers over at HBR (which lays out a lot of the key points of their research).

This research is interesting because it seems to almost directly contradictory to similar recent research around how large a part of a woman’s identity is actually that she’s a woman. It also highlights a key distinction between ignoring gender and deemphasizing it……

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In a recent study from researchers Ashley Martin, an incoming assistant professor at Stanford, and Katherine Phillips, a Columbia professor, it was found that women who believed in focusing on men’s and women’s similarities (“gender blindness”) felt greater power and confidence than women who advocated celebrating women’s distinctive qualities (“gender awareness”).

The researchers’ conclusion: Women benefit when they downplay gender. An excellent interview with the researchers over at HBR (which lays out a lot of the key points of their research).

This research is interesting because it seems to almost directly contradictory to similar recent research around how large a part of a woman’s identity is actually that she’s a woman. It also highlights a key distinction between ignoring gender and deemphasizing it.

 

Main ideas of the new research:

  • Gender blindness vs gender awareness (be careful with definitions here!)
    • “Blindness removes the “male” connotation from traits and behaviors like assertiveness, competitiveness, and risk taking, which are necessary to get ahead at work. “Ungendering” these qualities makes women more likely to recognize them in themselves and to feel more confident.”
    • So, in certain situations, it may be beneficial to deemphasize the gendered connotations of some words, including feminine words.
  • The researchers talk about downplaying the differences between fundamental personality, interest, and skills-based differences, which the authors suggest are often based only on stereotypes, and aren’t actual differences.
  • “Gender blindness needs to be applied very carefully. It’s about eliminating the idea that women have different skills and abilities, because they don’t.”
    • This is not an argument for meritocracy, which the authors highlight as being detrimental (and you all know how we feel about it around here!)
  • Is gender awareness really that authentic either?
  • In one study we found that gender blindness didn’t affect men’s confidence. But in another study we found that it made men feel less confident. This is consistent with our argument, because the type of differences we’re highlighting are male stereotypes that are seen as advantageous at work, so downplaying them should lead men to feel less confident.”
  • Gender blindness vs Racial color blindness (they aren’t the same thing, according to the researchers)
  • “If a woman was given a certain hand in blackjack, would she take another card? In a pay negotiation, would she try for her dream salary? We found that when women identify more with stereotypical male traits, which they’re more likely to do in a gender-blind organization, it leads them to feel more confident and take more action.”

Alternative thinking:

Earlier this year, there was separate research that suggested that a woman’s own view about how her gender affected her career will have an impact on her success. Notably:

  • Women who see their gender identity – being a woman – and their professional identity as compatible rather than in conflict are more effective negotiators.
  • The researchers hypothesize that those woman who do hold their own gender identity more strongly may be more likely to be successful in their career.

It’s complicated!

There’s a lot going on here, but two bigger things:

  1. Awareness. I’d argue that the researchers in the first study could have picked a better word than “blindness”. When they talk about “ungendering” traditionally male traits, that’s a very conscious process of identifying that these traits could be part of their identification as a woman  (and, in my opinion, exactly not blind). I’m not even sure “deemphasize” is the right word either. It’s almost about embracing or even owning traits that aren’t normally associated with women as part of their identity as a women (breaking stereotypes!).
  2. Environment. A great thing for those working on building inclusive workplaces. If it’s shown that ungendering traits that are normally associated with being feminine allows for women to connect more directly with, for instance, being assertive or risk-taking, creating a culture that supports that could be beneficial. As an example, a manager could explicitly commend a woman for making a counter argument for a major product launch in a team meeting.

 

Of course, all of this requires that unconscious biases are addressed and worked on in tandom, but that’s for another discussion!

 

Resources:

HBR ‘Defend Your Research’: Women Benefit When They Downplay Gender

Request Full Report: What “blindness” to gender differences helps women see and do: Implications for confidence, agency, and action in a male-dominated world

 

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