Photo by Charlotte Morrall via Flickr CC. Click for original.
Photo by Charlotte Morrall via Flickr CC. Click for original.

Gender bias in the workplace may not be breaking news, but its negative impact on mental health among powerful women might surprise you. A new study highlighted in Fast Company magazine suggests that women in high-ranking positions experience increased symptoms of depression. Lead author, sociologist Tetyana Pudrovska, describes the unexpected findings that came out of the WILLSHE project on the experiences of highly successful women:

What’s striking is that women with job authority in our study are advantaged in terms of most characteristics that are strong predictors of positive mental health. These women have more education, higher incomes, more prestigious occupations, and higher levels of job satisfaction and autonomy than women without job authority. Yet, they have worse mental health than lower-status women.

Men do not seem to suffer similar negative mental health consequences when in powerful occupations. Marianne Cooper, sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, explains:

Women leaders are viewed as being less competent than men, they’re evaluated in performance reviews on personality traits while men are evaluated on accomplishments, and they’re interrupted more often during team meetings. The day-to-day interactions can become tiring to deal with—it’s like death by 10,000 paper cuts.

Katie Cannon, Flickr CC
Katie Cannon, Flickr CC

After months of abuse and harassment from users, Reddit CEO Ellen Pao resigned from the website. Unfortunately, Pao’s experience is far from unique. Many female chief executives face character assassination based in large part on their gender; the anonymity of the Internet allows harassment to escalate as far as death threats. For many experts, Pao’s resignation is an example of the “glass cliff,” a point where women rise to higher positions only to be forced out through excessive personal attacks and abuse.

Sociologist Marianne Cooper of Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research isn’t surprised by this gendered bias, telling The Guardian, “I haven’t seen this kind of reaction to egregious things male CEOs have done.”

As lead researcher for Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Cooper is familiar with the gendered biases of the workplace and the use of female leaders as scapegoats for larger company problems: “Oftentimes, the women who inherit the problems are put in precarious positions, and if they fail, they are blamed for it.”


Photo by Juan Luis via Flickr.
Photo by Juan Luis via Flickr.


Chin-Strap, Fu Man Chu, Burt Reynolds, or Full Marx. National competitions honor it. Hockey players grow it. Dress codes may moderate it, and now finally, sociologists weigh in on it. We’re talking beards.

In early April, a men’s fashion article in The Guardian explored the historical significance of beards, describing, for example, how early Egyptian pharaohs wore fake beards as a symbol of power. Since then, facial hair’s place in men’s fashion has waxed and waned, at times symbolizing political power while at other times representing radical lifestyles and rejections of social norms. French sociologist Stéphane Héas explained the political and social connotations of beards.

“Being hairless and clean-shaven, or not, is far from neutral,” Héas said. “Social norms determine how far a beard should be allowed to grow, when it should be trimmed or shaved off.”

He goes on to explain how facial hair has reinforced gendered power in modern western cultures:

The patriarchal, male-dominant nature of western society in the 19th and 20th century almost certainly explains the appeal of sophisticated beards and moustaches. Policymakers made their presence felt through their discourse and facial hair.

Yet despite the power and authority associated with having facial hair, Héas notes that, “being completely hairless has become almost mandatory for western women and is spreading to men.” The beloved beard may be on its way out yet again.

Superhero Grammar
Photo by MrSchuReads via flickr.com

While pronouns may have lost out in the world of School House Rock (can you even compare “Conjunction Junction” or “Unpack Your Adjectives” to the pronoun song?), psychologist James Pennebaker believes it might be possible to predict future romances and analyze power dynamics based on these tiny words.

Pennebaker and his team recorded and transcribed hundreds of speed dating conversations.  After they analyzed words used during the conversations and information about how the speed daters thought their dates went, Pennebaker found that people subconsciously mimic the way others speak when we’re into them.

 “The more similar [they were] across all of these function words, the higher the probability that [they] would go on a date in a speed dating context,” Pennebaker says. “And this is even cooler: We can even look at … a young dating couple… [and] the more similar [they] are … using this language style matching metric, the more likely [they] will still be dating three months from now.”

Pennebaker also studies pronouns and power dynamics and thinks that it’s possible to tell who holds the power in any situation based on who uses the pronoun “I” more often.

 You’d think it would be the person who thinks he’s [or she’s] more important, but it turns out it’s actually the person who feels more insecure. When we’re fixated on how we’re coming across, our language reflects our self-consciousness.

However, Pennebaker doesn’t think that people can use this research to change themselves.  As he puts it, “The words reflect who we are more than drive who we are.”

P.S. For some interesting examples, check out the full article from Jezebel.  Also check out Pennebaker’s website for tools you can use to analyze your tweets or analyze how two people are paying attention to each other in a conversation.

P.P.S. For those of you who also couldn’t even remember how School House Rock taught us about pronouns, here’s a link to memory lane.

Felix the cat

Could the President of the United States be a vegetarian?  According to Vanderbilt Professor of Philosophy Kelly Oliver, it’s not likely.   In her recent New York Times Op-Ed, Oliver explained,

In the United States, we often see our political leaders hunting, particularly bird-hunting, which seems to demonstrate their manly fortitude and bloodlust — qualities intended to persuade us that they can keep us safe.  Hunting has become a tool of sorts within the realm of political image making.  With few exceptions, President Obama among them, most presidents and presidential hopefuls have been seen hunting.  Meat eating, too, is an act used to portray strength.  Obama is known to enjoy his burgers, a fact that has helped counter his image as a green-tea drinking elitist.  Even Sarah Palin’s so-called new brand of feminism revolves around the image of a tough “mama grizzly,” as she calls herself, shooting and gutting moose to feed and protect her family.

Yet while hunters are often seen as tough providers, animal lovers are infantilized.

In popular culture, celebrities who take on animal causes are seen as a bit crazy — rich versions of the “crazy cat lady,” or dog-crazy Leona Helmsley. Not coincidentally, they are usually women.  And, our relationships to the animals with whom (or rather which, to be grammatically correct) we live is given very little status in our society.  Despite the proliferation of  “cute” pet pictures and anecdotes on the Web, actual displays of affection toward one’s pet or companion animal, or grief expressed over their illness or death, is looked upon with ridicule.

What more, people who are dependent on their animals are seen as unhealthy.  In fact, this is reflected in laws surrounding guide dogs, comfort dogs used to provide emotional support to children testifying in court, and other forms of animal service.

The regulations are very clear: these animals are not pets.  They are “serving” an essential therapeutic purpose.  The fact that these relationships are circumscribed by laws relegate animals to the role of tools or medication, an act that also pathologizes the people who rely on them.  Animals, then, can enter our intimate family units only as pets, which is to say property, or as a result of trauma, disease or disability.  This cultural attitude suggests that people who are dependent upon their animals for anything other than amusement or entertainment are abnormal or unhealthy.  Loving animals as friends and family is seen as quirky at best and at worst, crazy.


To read more about Oliver’s specific reflections on animals and philosophy, click here


Day 27In a recent editorial in the Huffington Post, Abby Ferber, Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Ethnic Studies, uses the recent coverage of  Arnold Schwarzenegger’s child from an affair and Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged rape of a woman in NYC as an opportunity to examine often ignored elements of heterosexual privilege.

As Ferber reminds us, this is not the first time men in positions of power have been accused of sexual activity not befitting a married (or unmarried) man.

Another news cycle focused on powerful men’s inappropriate and abusive sexual behavior…Before Arnold, it was Tiger Woods, and John Edwards, and ______ (fill in the blank with one of the many other names that might pop into your mind at this point).
We have heard it all before. The flurry of newspaper and tabloid articles rehash the same old issues.

However, one accusation that is absent in the glut of sensationalist coverage, is that these men are destroying marriage itself. Instead, Ferber explains, we reserve that accusation for gay and lesbian couples seeking the right to marry.

The actions of individual heterosexual men are never used against all heterosexuals. One of the central benefits of being part of a privileged social identity group is that your own behavior is never taken as representing that of your entire group. No matter how many stories we hear about heterosexual men committing adultery and destroying their marriages, why is it that we continue to hear that it is LGBT people that are the greatest threat to the institution of marriage?

The privilege extends beyond the marital walls to negative stereotypes about deviant sexual desires and lack of self-control.

And what about the stereotypes of gay men as promiscuous, or as pedophiles? Here heterosexual men have gay men beat as well, and there is no dearth of public examples…And yet again it is gay men that our society stereotypes as pedophiles.

Ferber’s brief, but powerful, op-ed shows the importance of not only looking at what is said, but also what is not said. Sometimes it is the questions not asked, and generalizations not made, that reveal the benefits of positions of power.

That is what heterosexual privilege does, it allows individual heterosexual men to behave badly without anyone assuming it says something about all heterosexuals. And the point is not to assume that it does, but to ask why so many are willing to quickly make these assumptions about those who do not share the benefits of heterosexual privilege.


Don't mess with Texas
Curriculum changes have been approved in the state of Texas, one of the largest buyers of textbooks in the U.S. From the New York Times:

After three days of turbulent meetings, the Texas Board of Education on Friday approved a social studies curriculum that will put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light.

Proponents cite adding “balance” as an underlying goal:

Since January, Republicans on the board have passed more than 100 amendments to the 120-page curriculum standards affecting history, sociology and economics courses from elementary to high school. The standards were proposed by a panel of teachers.

“We are adding balance,” said Dr. Don McLeroy, the leader of the conservative faction on the board, after the vote. “History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.”

Battles over what to put in science and history books have taken place for years in the 20 states where state boards must adopt textbooks, most notably in California and Texas. But rarely in recent history has a group of conservative board members left such a mark on a social studies curriculum.

Notably, some voices were absent from the discussion:

There were no historians, sociologists or economists consulted at the meetings, though some members of the conservative bloc held themselves out as experts on certain topics.

Changes to history and economics curriculum include revisions to sections on the history of the civil rights movement, the conservative resurgence of the ’80s and ’90s, the separation of church and state, U.S. internment practices during WWII, McCarthyism, affirmative action, and Title IX. Additionally:

In the field of sociology, another conservative member, Barbara Cargill, won passage of an amendment requiring the teaching of “the importance of personal responsibility for life choices” in a section on teenage suicide, dating violence, sexuality, drug use and eating disorders.

“The topic of sociology tends to blame society for everything,” Ms. Cargill said.

Read about more approved changes.

P-90-Fc-028Also, yesterday the Chicago Tribune discussed whether disasters cause people to behave selfishly or altruistically.

When the ship is sinking is it really women and children first, or every man for himself? The answer, it seems, may depend on how fast it’s going down.

Comparing who survived two of history’s most famous sinkings — the Titanic and the Lusitania — indicates sharply different behavior on the two doomed vessels, neither of which had enough available lifeboats for all passengers.

When a torpedo sent the Lusitania to the bottom in just 18 minutes, claiming 1,198 lives, most survivors were young, fit people age 16 to 35 who could rush to a spot in the lifeboats and hang on to it.

By contrast, it took 2 hours and 40 minutes for the Titanic to slip beneath the waves, time for people to consider what to do rather than just react. While 1,517 people perished, the survivors tended to be women, children and those accompanying a child.

Economist Benno Torgler led a study about how people act in extreme situations. He comments:

“In the environment of the Titanic, social norms were enforced more often, and there was also a higher willingness among males to surrender a seat on a lifeboat,” researcher Benno Torgler of Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia said of the findings.

Why might this be?

Torgler points to the “procreation instinct,” which holds that because the survival of a species depends on its offspring, a high value must be placed upon females of reproductive age as a valuable resource.

Aboard the Titanic, where social norms had time to come into play, women had a 53 percent higher probability of surviving than males, Torgler said. “But no (such) effect was observable in the Lusitania.”

The Titanic went down after colliding with an iceberg on the night of April 12, 1912. It was three years later, May 7, 1915, that a torpedo sank the Lusitania.

The researchers note that it is likely that those aboard the Lusitania were familiar with the Titanic disaster and that also might have affected their thinking more toward self-preservation.

A social psychologist weighs in:

Col. Thomas Kolditz, head of the department of behavioral sciences at the U.S. Military Academy, said the researchers’ explanation for this behavior difference is plausible, “but they underestimate the role of leadership.” Competent leaders in dangerous situations influence people, but this takes time, said Kolditz, who was not part of the research team.

“It is unlikely that the mere passage of time led to the emergence of pro-social and selfless behaviors. It is much more likely that, in the case of the Titanic, leaders were able to impact the process of abandoning ship in a more direct way, whereas the effect of leadership was minimized in the fast-breaking circumstances on the Lusitania,” Kolditz said.

Additionally, social class affected survival chances in these disasters:

The study found a higher survival rate for first-class passengers on the Titanic, but not on the Lusitania, where first-class passengers fared even worse than third-class passengers in the scramble to exit the ship.

In the case of the Titanic, upper class passengers also had more time to assert the privilege to which they were accustomed, calling on the ships officers whom they knew and perhaps even bargaining for seats in the lifeboats.

Read more.

115.365 - Porn for Women: VacuumingDoes a rise in women’s earning power have benefits to marriage beyond economic stability?  In an attempt to address this question, a recent New York Times article summarized some of the recent social scientific evidence on the rise of working women:

Last week, a report from the Pew Research Center about what it called “the rise of wives” revived the debate. Based on a study of Census data, Pew found that in nearly a third of marriages, the wife is better educated than her husband. And though men, over all, still earn more than women, wives are now the primary breadwinner in 22 percent of couples, up from 7 percent in 1970.

While the changing economic roles of husbands and wives may take some getting used to, the shift has had a surprising effect on marital stability. Over all, the evidence shows that the shifts within marriages — men taking on more housework and women earning more outside the home — have had a positive effect, contributing to lower divorce rates and happier unions.

The article points to demographic and sociological evidence that suggests greater marital stability and egalitarianism when a woman is more economically independent:

While it’s widely believed that a woman’s financial independence increases her risk for divorce, divorce rates in the United States tell a different story: they have fallen as women have made economic gains. The rate peaked at 23 divorces per 1,000 couples in the late 1970s, but has since dropped to fewer than 17 divorces per 1,000 couples. Today, the statistics show that typically, the more economic independence and education a woman gains, the more likely she is to stay married. And in states where fewer wives have paid jobs, divorce rates tend to be higher, according to a 2009 report from the Center for American Progress.

Sociologists and economists say that financially independent women can be more selective in marrying, and they also have more negotiating power within the marriage. But it’s not just women who win. The net result tends to be a marriage that is more fair and equitable to husbands and wives.

The changes are not without their challenges. “With women taking on more earning and men taking on more caring, there’s a lot of shifting and juggling,” said Andrea Doucet, a sociology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. Her study, the Bread and Roses Project, tracks couples in the United States and Canada in which women are the primary breadwinners. But the dynamic is “not as easy as you’d think it would be,” she said. “You can’t just reverse the genders.”

Men, for instance, sometimes have a hard time adjusting to a woman’s equal or greater earning power. Women, meanwhile, struggle with giving up their power at home and controlling tasks like how to dress the children or load the dishwasher.

Highlighting additional sociological evidence:

Kristen W. Springer, a sociologist at Rutgers, has found that among men in their 50s, having a wife who earns more money is associated with poorer health. Among the highest earning couples in her study, a husband who earns less than his wife is 60 percent less likely to be in good health compared with men who earn more than their wives.

And despite the sweeping economic changes in marriage over the last 40 years, all is not equal. Even among dual-earning couples, women still do about two-thirds of the housework, on average, according to the University of Wisconsin National Survey of Families and Households. But men do contribute far more than they used to. Studies show that since the 1960s, men’s contributions to housework have doubled, while the amount of time spent caring for children has tripled.

And the blurring of traditional gender roles appears to have a positive effect. Lynn Prince Cooke, a sociology professor at the University of Kent in England, has found that American couples who share employment and housework responsibilities are less likely to divorce compared with couples where the man is the sole breadwinner.

Examiner.com recently reported on research into the connection between workplace gossip and office politics. Who gossips at work, and whom they gossip about, may reveal who has real power in the workplace.

Said Indiana University sociologist Tim Hallet, one of the authors of the study:

“If you’re interested in learning how an organization works, you can look at the organizational chart, which can be useful. But often people say, ‘I still can’t tell how things get done, who the prime movers are.’ If you’re attentive, you can see who has the informal status, which isn’t on the formal charts. It can help you understand how work actually gets done.”

More about the research:

In order to determine what political work was getting done through gossip, Hallett and his colleagues—sociologists Donna Eder and Brent Harger—observed the employees at an elementary school. At the time, teachers at the institution were adjusting to a new school principal and often felt like their concerns were not being adequately addressed. In order to cope with this sense of powerlessness, the teachers often used gossip to vent their concerns, as they believed the official channels were not open to them to lodge formal complaints.

According to Hallett, gossip not only happens during employee downtime, but often in more formal settings like business meetings:

“When you’re sitting in that business meeting, be attentive to when the talk drifts away from the official task at hand to people who aren’t present,” he said. “Be aware that what is going on is a form of politics and it’s a form of politics that can be a weapon to undermine people who aren’t present. But it also can be a gift. If people are talking positively it can be a way to enhance someone’s reputation.”