Friday, December 07, 2007

Aggressive Women

This has happened so many times:

I am in a meeting at which a woman scientist is discussed (for whatever reason), and she is criticized for being "aggressive".

I object.

My colleagues think I am biased and possibly irrational, and that my response is some knee-jerk reflex to Defend Scientific Womanhood no matter what.

My opinions about everything else are not taken very seriously because I have demonstrated that I am not objective.

Criticizing someone for being aggressive is a cheap way to undermine them. What does it even mean? Is being aggressive always bad? If someone is so aggressively competitive that they will step on everyone in their path, including students and puppies, and cast aside all consideration of ethics to achieve scientific glory, then OK, I think that is a bad thing. However, that is very far from the case in every example in my personal experience, including the most recent one.

This insidious phenomenon has been discussed before by me and many others: women who demonstrate self-confidence and comprehensive knowledge of their research/science are seen (by some) as aggressive. I should mention that it is not just men who criticize women for this; women also criticize other women for being aggressive, and no, I am not misinterpreting something that was meant as a compliment.

The recent example that has me so angry today involves a case in which an extremely smart, friendly, personable, and interesting woman was severely criticized for being aggressive. I was so surprised at this absurd statement that I laughed out loud. I asked for clarification, thinking at first that the comment wasn't meant to be as critical as it sounded or perhaps that I had missed some important information somewhere, but no such luck. I think my response was calm, reasoned, yet forceful -- perhaps even aggressive! -- but, whether I was effective or not (clearly I was not), why was I the only one objecting?

And another thing, since I am ranting:

In this meeting, a woman was described as glib, and this was again meant as a criticism. I said to the maker of the glib-comment: I would describe her as very articulate and well-spoken about a wide range of topics, showing great depth and breadth. Where do you draw the line between glib and articulate? My colleague said OK, you're right, she is very articulate. I said And that's a good thing, right? Yes, we all agreed that being articulate is a good thing. Maybe I won that point, but I didn't change whatever underlying reason made that colleague describe someone as glib rather than articulate in the first place.

I hate it when I underestimate the insanity of my colleagues. I am quite cynical, but I think I need to recalibrate my cynicism for some of this committee work.

This semester, I am on more committees than is good for my sanity. I still like to think that it is important that I am there to make people defend their stupid sexist statements, however ineffective I am at changing their opinions, but perhaps I just think that because the alternative is difficult to accept.


Anonymous said...

I think you have to continue to make your points because in the long run hopefully you will cause people to think about their latent sexual stereotyping ... maybe not at that point in time, but maybe at on the drive home or in the future.
I'm a female software developer. My last review I got described as confrontational for actions that I'm sure would not have described that way in a male.

Anonymous said...

I usually try a "Can you give an example of her behavior that you found aggressive?" first. Men with even an ounce of common sense will hear the implicit "Justify your gender-slanted appraisal" and start backtracking. The rest, feel free to rake over the coals...

Anonymous said...

isn't it wonderful how we also get dinged for being passive?

Female Science Professor said...

Maybe we should all be passive-aggressive, just to split the difference.

I did try the 'give me an example' approach, and the examples were bizarre -- e.g., she has very specific, detailed answers whenever you ask her questions.

ScienceGirl said...

It is hard to not be aggressive when you have to fight to be allowed to have an opinion.

El JoPe Magnifico said...

I agree that asking -- gently! -- for clarification is a better approach than objecting right off the bat, and any changing of perspective will more likely be subject to some lag and may require cumulative effect across multiple instances, rather than an immediate "FTW!"

Being given bizarre examples is actually a good sign. It probably means you have the man on the ropes already and he's flailing about for a response. All that's needed then is one more round, "And how are detailed answers (or whatever) aggressive?" at which point you will have sufficiently made your point and can drop the issue.

...Unless you really want to continue the skewering, but that in itself would likely be viewed as aggressive and thereby undermine your nudge toward enlightenment.

My question is this: Where are your appreciative male peers during all this? If they exist, they should be enlisted to also speak up.

Fernando Pereira said...

Some universities have been trying to make hiring committees more aware of unconscious biases in hiring, for example Michigan, which has a handbook just for that:

There is also extensive research on the subject of unconscious gender, race, and national origin biases in subjective evaluations of candidates.

Anonymous said...

It is funny, because the term aggressive is usually a compliment when applied to a man. E.g., He has an aggressive research program. I once replied, Can I have a warm and fuzzy program and still be successful? My senior colleague got the hint and laughed, but I don't know many who would.

Ms.PhD said...

You're still my hero. Keep up the good work.

Committees can drive everyone insane. If you're feeling overwhelmed, don't do quite so many committees. You don't have to, and probably can't, be the heroine on them all. And that's okay. We recognize that you can't be everywhere at once.

And until we can clone you...

I love the examples of what this poor person is "doing wrong." They all sound like hallmarks of a fantastic scientist and the perfect colleague to me! Quite typical that they can figure out how to make someone outstanding sound bad just because she's female.

And I've actually heard some male faculty here complain about how they can't figure out why more women aren't applying for faculty positions. Sheesh!

I'm going to try to look at this post in a positive light - yay, FSP!- and not run home to hide under my couch. I'm 100% sure these are the kinds of things they say about me.

Anonymous said...

It also sounds to me like people really need to be challenged on why they are choosing the words they are choosing. 'Glib' was the wrong word. Why did you choose that? What were you trying to describe? What's the more accurate descriptor? What are the differences between those two words? Finally--why did you choose this word (usually the negative one, or the one chosen to give a negative impression) over this other one, which we agree is more accurate (and probably specifically positive)?

Honestly--too many people really do need to be led around by the nose like that. Maybe the committee isn't the perfect place to be doing it, but there's no time like the present and immediate. It's not always acceptable in this culture to challenge the way people think, especially about something that seems inherently a social issue, but it just has to be done.

Anonymous said...

I find this striking, because in my experience, it is *men* who are typically criticized for being 'aggressive.' (I'm in the humanities.) And sometimes the criticism is of males in a seminar, collectively: the room was flooded with testosterone.

I agree entirely that aggression isn't an unmitigated bad, and indeed in academic contexts I think subjecting other people's views to vigorous criticism or defending yourself vigorously, is a good way of making progress. (Not the only way, just one good way.)

So, anyway, I'm mildly surprised that people here have had the opposite experience, that it's women who are the main targets of the 'aggressiveness' criticism. Maybe this is a difference between the sciences and the humanities.

Anonymous said...

Regarding female aggression, I highly recommend a book called Without Apology: Girls, Women, and the Desire to Fight by Leah Hager Cohen (Amazon link). It's about girls and boxing -- a topic I never though I'd be interested in -- but a friend passed it on to me and said she'd really enjoyed it. It's definitely worth a read. It's primarily a narrative about a girls' boxing club in a poor neighborhood of Boston, but Cohen also talks a lot about aggression as a positive force linked with desire and physicality, how society frowns upon it in girls and women, and what we lose when we don't allow ourselves to be express it. Thoughtful stuff, very well written. Check it out if you have a chance.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Interesting comment above from male humanist!

Absolutely in the sciences, one gets ahead by being aggressive. At LargeU this is always seen as an admirable traits for the guys, but when a female prof displays the same characteristics, she is described as a "crazy psycho-bitch" or "riding her husband's coattails." What to do?

Anonymous said...

FSP, you are my hero as well. What you describe is what drives women away from the physical sciences. That you are still in there fighting for what is right is a tribute to your strength.

The most amazing part to me is that these are men who consider themselves to be rational and impartial. I am sure they don't recognize the underlying misogyny that drives their bizarre interpretations of women's behavior.

Anonymous said...

Are you sure "aggressive" wasn't just polite-speak for "asshole"?

Anonymous said...

I recently sat on our national grant review panels as a junior female academic. As a mother of two kids who has a few grants, many students but not enough papers it was quite alarming to hear one of the male professors state very matter of factly "i did read that she had two years of maternity leave but I don't think that's enough reason to not publish more". I was so gobsmacked that I couldn't speak. I was seriously rattled by this most alarming comment and although I have long adhered to the "change from within the system" mantra, this was one occasion where I failed (I certainly made the point to the same panel in subsequent discussions...!).

As a female scientist I love a good debate. If I have a different opinion based on my reading of the literature then I will make the point, and make it as strongly as any of my male counterparts. Although I can separate the professional from the personal, it seems that this is not something that is afforded to many women in science. Hence, they are aggressive, whereas their male colleagues are 'sharp' (and worth taking to the pub for drink later on).

The most striking example of this for me occurred at a conference amongst supposed colleagues a few years ago. One of the male postdocs made very sarcastic and disparaging remarks about me during his talk, based on the fact that I'd disagreed with his point of view during an earlier small group discussion. At the beginning of my talk I replied by indicating that I didn't think that stating one's opinion would be taken personally but rather it was all part of a healthy scientific discourse. I'm sure that this was too 'aggressive' for the audience but plenty of more junior women in the group commented on the fact that they were so pleased that I'd made the statement. It seems so ridiculous that this type of defence is even necessary.

Anonymous said...

I've noticed sometimes that men who behave this way aren't used to hearing, for example, a simple statement of fact from a female speaker; the women in their lives (such as family members) package anything they say to the guy in a lot of caretaking speech about how important whatever he said was, there's also this fact, and what does he think? Anything coming from a woman without all the cushioning gets attacked as aggression, because the man presumes it is his right to be pandered to in such a manner by all women.

I've run into that myself quite a few times, and it gets really funny when you call them on it. I've actually had men with this attitude tell me that lack of panderspeech must indicate that I "hate men". When I ask them where they're getting that from, they say that I irritate them as well as some other reactionary bigot they've found, so since more than one man gets irritated, I must be hating on the men.

For some reason greeting this with a hearty burst of laughter pisses them off. So does, "Seriously? That's your reasoning? You don't like something I've said, therefore *I* must hate *you*?"

LZ Blogger said...

I see nothing wrong with AGRESSIVE behavior as long as it is not offensive or counter productive. And, I don't think the gender matters! ~ jb///

Anonymous said...

I didn't know you could be agressive in a good way, the word agressive for me summons the picture of a bodybuilder who didn't reall build all those muscles the traditional way beating someone up. That is agressive, and any positive meaning to the word is alien to me except in the intellectual sense that.

Still, supposing that you for some strange reason would like to use agressive as an word with good meaning, doesn't the practice of taking an defensive stance promote the notion that agressive women are bad/evil?

If the word in some context A has a positive meaning, defending questioning the use in another context B implies that in this new context B the word has a negative meaning, and thus the notion that the word in context B is a negative word live on.

But the issue isn't really that women are called agressive, it's that the word agrressive is used inconsistently between men and women. From this perspective, doesn't asking for clarification about what implocation of the word is being used make more sense than objecting to the use of the word?

Objecting implies you agree that there is an accepted difference in meaning between the genders, but you don't like it. Questioning the meaning implies that there isn't an accepted difference and they are wrong to assume there is.

After all, if they are critizing someone for a real reason they will not be hindered by you banning the use of a word, but if they are just parroting something they heard without much tought reformulating the critizism might well make them realize they don't have an actual objection.

Global Girl said...

I have consigned myself to that in engineering, I am both aggressive enough for two armies and glib to boot. Never shut up, in fact. Awfully awkward when people are trying to be antisocial, as regular non-glib, passive, friendly men often do. On the other hand, I just got a consulting job because I'm so overly aggressive and glib. I think it's for the best. I don't know how you stand it, FSP, but I'm glad you've found a way I didn't. Keep it up. Don't let them get away with subjectivity as "reason".

Anonymous said...

"Objecting implies you agree that there is an accepted difference in meaning between the genders, but you don't like it. Questioning the meaning implies that there isn't an accepted difference and they are wrong to assume there is."

I was just thinking about this. I think it'd work to question the use of "aggressive" and other problem terms every time they come up, not just when they are applied to women. Then when someone says you're just on your irrational hobbyhorse again, you can laugh and point out they're the ones being irrational, since you question the use of "aggressive" for everyone, and yokelX is applying the gender notions, not you.

Of course, this has an amusing slant if your colleagues never use "aggressive" to describe males. When you point out you question the meaning of "aggressive" every time it's used, if someone says you only question it for women, you can ask each and every person on that committee why they use that word only for women and not for men.

Anonymous said...

I think people who are insecure with themselves are threatened by anyone who is secure in themselves. Additionally people like to have a neat and ready ideal of how everyone should behave and when they encounter someone who dares to be themselves they are propelled into the insanity of thier insecurity. I wish I could more aggressive women. I dated one years ago and it was the realtionship I should of have stuck with. Unfortunately I was not secure enough or mature enough understand what I needed. Keep up the good work ladies.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad these things are being discussed here.

I am so fed up with the oppression of women.

The news today had a story of a woman with a face transplant. She looked horrible. Her husband shot her in the face.

The story was treated as a normal story, as if it were about gardening or something.

I am very upset about the status quo in this day and age, the twenty first century. I feel we are still in caveman times.

proudaggressivewoman said...

I have been accused of being aggressive. I actually did a web search for "aggressive women" because it has become a professional problem for me. The first page of results contained links about women being sexually aggressive. I think that speaks volumes.

I'm confident in my work, what I like and don't like. I have always put co-workers on edge with my results. Their reactions are not to work harder or be comfortable with the situation, but to attack me personally. I had one supervisor ask me if I had a life other than work in front of co-workers; who promptly laughed. I had another boss out right tell me I needed to get laid after I brought an error to his attention before a customer saw it. This was also in front of co-workers who laughed. I laughed too, but only because I knew I had a life outside of work and well the last comment was disproved the night before.

I've tried dumbing down in order to appear less aggressive, but that didn't work, obviously. It's very nice to find these posts and see I'm not alone.