You may have seen this video of an advertisement for Pantene that examines labels often used for women and men; and how different they can be.
If we set aside for a moment (although I don't think we should do so completely) that this is an ad about women's hair, the video does a nice job exploring the double standard often facing women in the workplace. It explores the way that women and men who are seen as competent and successful may be judged by others. Even when engaging in the same behaviors, men may be called persuasive while women are deemed pushy; men are dedicated when they stay up late to work while women are selfish; men neat and women vain; the list continues. This phenomenon is often found in studies where participants are given a vignette of a character--half of the participants are given a story that refers to a man. The other half have a story that refers to a woman. All other details (besides gender) are exactly the same. As in the Harvard case study, women may be judged as competent in the circumstances, but are often viewed as much less likable than men.
The Pantene commercial puts forth the solution that women shouldn't "let labels hold them back" and instead they should "be strong and shine." Like "beautiful" hair.
If only solving the double standards facing all successful women was as simple as changing our shampoo.
So, while I appreciated the ad's attempt to highlight how ridiculous these stereotypes are, I balked a bit at the victim-blaming solution. Oh, us silly women. Lettin' those labels hold us back. No more! Let me shake out my hair and take 100% responsibility for the double standards I struggle with constantly.
Putting all sarcasm aside, I truly wish it were so easy. I often tell my students that one of the difficulties of studying gender and social justice issues is that I still face the same stereotypes as other women--and while I may be more aware of them than some, that doesn't fully protect me from their impacts. I know how hard it is to feel like I have to choose between being seen as the "nice" professor or the "smart" one. My male colleagues are not struggling with this same false dichotomy.
The reality is that sexism in the workplace is way more complicated than simply changing the labels we use for women and men. Those labels reflect underlying assumptions that people are often buying into without questioning them. Luckily a number of scholars have done extensive work to unravel these often unintentional but powerful biases AND have proposed ways to combat them. Stephanie Shields, P.h.D. and her colleagues at Penn State University have developed the WAGES project "designed to educate individuals about the sources and cumulative effects of subtle gender bias." Joan Williams developed the Gender Bias Learning Project to facilitate a greater understanding of patterns of gender bias.
Both of these projects acknowledge that both men and women need to examine the stereotypes they have internalized about gender which contribute to sexism in the workplace. However, they do not assume that women simply need to rise above such assumptions. Instead of telling women to just "ignore others" who may call them a bitch for being opinionated, it is on all of us to shape a social structure that does not punish women for being competent and smart (nor men for being sensitive; but that is another blog post for another time).
Today I had the great pleasure of attending the graduation of the first PsyD students to complete the Counseling Psychology Program at Chatham University. All three of them are women--smart, talented, successful, dynamic, kind, multifaceted women. As I am the academic advisor for two of these women, I have certainly had conversations with them about navigating the world of work as a woman. We have talked about the labels they might face (and some they have already experienced) and how they might cope with sexism in the workplace. On this day of their graduation, I refuse to tell them to just ignore these experiences and shine anyway.
Instead I say to the world:
Make way for powerful women.
Make a way for powerful women to be respected, liked, treated with equity and dignity.
Don't build a box that you try to force these women into.
Don't ask them to choose whether they want to be liked or respected.
Don't sell yourself short by missing out on anything they have to offer.
Make workplaces for them where they can feel at home and shine.
Don't get out of the way of these women, but rather welcome them with excitement and enthusiasm they deserve. Appreciate all of the dimensions they bring to their interactions, both their compassionate and loving selves, and their smart and witty selves.
Make way for powerful women. For they are coming your way.
-Britney Brinkman, P.h.D.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.