Individual behavior doesn’t change structural inequality

Boys versus girls — is it a school thing?

Cila Warncke
6 min readMar 16, 2019

Sometimes the question is just too forehead-slappingly painful to process. This one has taken me days.

“Hard work and discipline help girls outperform boys in class, but that advantage disappears in the work force. Is school the problem?

This is the subhead to Lisa Damour’s New York Times op-ed titled:
Why Girls Beat Boys at School and Lose to Them at the Office”.

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In her defense, she didn’t write the subhead but she wrote the article that it succinctly summarizes. (Times subeditors know their game.)

Here’s my summary, if you are too time-pressed/jaded to read the original:

Damour, a psychologist, notices that her teenage girl clients bust their butts at school, relentlessly striving for perfection even if they’re pretty good. Their brothers/boys generally, don’t.

Most-highlighted sentence: “ We need to ask: What if school is a confidence factory for our sons, but only a competence factory for our daughters?”

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Why girls are so nervous? (Hint: it’s not hormones)

Damour so awesomely fails to grasp the larger implications at work that I kind of admire her focus. Yay tunnel vision.

The problem is not school, it’s society.

Schools do not exist in a vacuum; students do not exist in a school-sized bubble. All reflect, absorb, emulate and react to the larger culture.

If girls are anxious perfectionists and boys are chillin’ it’s because both have noticed that we live in a world where boys will grow into men who, by virtue of owning a penis, will work less, earn more, be taken at their word (hello Kavanaugh), and even become the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, merrily grabbing pussy as they go.

Any wonder girls are uptight? Being stressed, anxious, and striving for some armor against this system is supremely rational. To treat it, as Damour does, like one more female foible is counterproductive at best.

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Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

According to Damour’s logic, girls should kick back at school and just be confident like the dudes. Somehow, this is supposed to get them into the peachy job roles that they’re currently too shriveled and anxious to seize.

This assumes that if women act like men they will be rewarded.

Whereas time and again we see that women who act like men are punished.

Business expert Susan Fleming: “Numerous studies across many different countries, different age groups, etc. have consistently demonstrated that when individuals think of the typical leader or manager, they think of a male…. So when you see that aggressive male leader — confident, intelligent, decisive, exercising authority — the world feels right. In contrast, when you consider a female leader, you have inconsistent stereotypes being triggered.

“A female leader is supposed to be strong and authoritative, know her stuff, hold her ground and speak her mind, but while doing that, she is simultaneously also supposed to come off as sweet, supportive, nice, communal, kind and gentle — all of those expectations of what an appropriate woman is supposed to be. As a woman who’s worked in the business world, that’s really hard to do simultaneously and the failure to do that triggers a lot of bad things for women leaders.”

Women who “act like men” are discounted; so are their soft-spoken sisters. Nothing any teenage girl does is going to change that socio-cultural reality.

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“Shifting standards” or, The ever-moving target

Women are dismissed for being too feminine, or not feminine enough. That’s bad. Worse, the definition of what is good/successful/desirable is changed depending on whether it applies to a man or a woman.

Fleming recounts a study on bias in hiring: “Some researchers did a study on hiring for the position of police chief, which is a very male-typed position typically. They created two resumes, one that had more experience and one that had more education. They then pre-tested them with no names on them and they were evaluated as fairly equivalent. Then they put a woman’s name on the one with more education and a man’s name on the experience one. When they asked people which one they would pick, they picked the man and they justified their decision by saying he had more experience.

“Then they flipped the names so that the woman’s resume had more experience and they still said they’d hire the man. Why? Because he had more education. That’s shifting the standards.”

The study was carried out in 2005 study by Uhlmann & Cohen who, in rather more academic language, explained: “Participants… did not view male and female applicants as having different strengths and weaknesses. Instead, they redefined the criteria for success at the job as requiring the specific credentials that a candidate of the desired gender happened to have.” (Italics mine).

In other words, whenever women step up (or, to use that ghastly term, ‘lean in’) to meet a set of male expectations the men just chuckle and flip the script.

As long as a devil-may-care attitude towards studies/work/life is seen as male trait, it will be praised. If girls start taking it easy, the pendulum will shift.

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What women’s work is worth

Think I’m just another angry feminist with a chip on my shoulder?

You’re not wrong.

But I am a angry feminist with a chip on her shoulder and evidence.

Consider another NYT headline: “As Women Take Over a Male-Dominated Field, the Pay Drops”.

Sample quote: “When women enter fields in greater numbers, pay declines — for the very same jobs that more men were doing before.”

See, it’s not just that women are paid less for the same work. It’s that the more women do a particular sort of work the less valuable it becomes.

A study by Paula England, a sociology professor at New York University found “substantial evidence that employers placed a lower value on work done by women. ‘It’s not that women are always picking lesser things in terms of skill and importance…. It’s just that the employers are deciding to pay it less’.”

Some more examples:

When women became designers wages fell 34 percentage points, when they became housekeepers wages fell by 21 percentage points, when they became biologists wages fell 18 percentage points.

Not only that: “The reverse was true when a job attracted more men. Computer programming, for instance, used to be a relatively menial role done by women. But when male programmers began to outnumber female ones, the job began paying more and gained prestige.”

Remember Hidden Figures? When women did complex mathematics and coding they were disposable machines. Once the dude-bros arrive computer programming became the Holiest of Holy Grails.

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The lesson is…

I’d like to say something upbeat here. Offer a five-point empowerment plan that will blast the sisterhood into professional orbit while promoting maximum personal satisfaction, or something.

Unfortunately, the only solution — per usual — is to fight. To demand equal pay, equal representation, reproductive rights, healthcare, human dignity, and to not shut up until we win, or die.

Anything else is specious and self-defeating.

To quote Gloria Steinem: “Power can be taken, but not given.”

Asking, or telling, women to contort themselves to meet the latest demand of the patriarchy is done in the vain hope that if we’re good girls, they’ll give us a little slice of the pie.

History, distant and recent, advises otherwise.

If something is going to change it has to be the structure. Not us.

See also: Boy vs girl: The school gender gap

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