Casual Friday- Comunicating The Breeder Stereotype In The Workplace

October 20th, 2011 | Categories: Role

Today The Communicated Stereotype introduces its newest feature. Casual Fridays. On casual Fridays, TCS discusses stereotypes communicated casually in the workplace. Today’s blog deals with stereotypes of the the heterosexual female as breeder.

Communicating the Breeder Stereotype in the Workplace

Pregnancy marks women. It is a visible symbol of our being different, other. It serves, much like a visible disability to draw attention to something about us, noticeable as Goffman would call a stigma, to distinguish us, to make us different.

Difference, in conversation, is worthy of note. It guides our perception (Am I like this person or not like this person? Do we share similarities? Could I become friend with this person?)

It also guides our conversation (Should I mention it? Will the person be insulted if I mention it or will it cause conflict if I notice it? Isn’t it the nice thing to say even though I don’t care?)

From Colleague to Breeder

In this post I will discuss three ways in which the mark of pregnancy is made visible and discuss the implications of this for transitioning a mother or mother-to-be from colleague to breeder.

Once marked as different, as other, a person may be viewed as needing assistance. After all, there is something about this person that makes them different from everyone else that is normal and so, perhaps with some help they can be normal too. This occurs in innumerable ways with the disabled and elderly, often viewed as disabled, when others help them across the street, and so forth. With assistance, these folks can engage in the same activities as those who are normal, without stigma. If we view motherhood as a stigma, then we can examine how others work to make mothers “normal.”

One example of this are colleagues who take up the perceived “slack” of mothers in the workplace. This is expressed in the statement, “I work late hours because those with kids in the department can’t.” This sentence marks mothers as requiring special accommodation. The colleague here is assisting the breeder in accomplishing the normal everyday tasks of any faculty by taking on courses from the disabled breeder, incapacitated by her impending or current motherhood. Through this statement, the colleague is transitioned to breeder, something other than full colleague, marked by her mothering status. Of course one might ask whether the breeder requested such special accommodation, whether indeed the breeder needs the special accommodation, and whether in fact other non-breeders in the department have benefited at times from a similar special accommodation regardless of their mothering status. In this way, the statement constructs the “breeder” colleague as an outgroup member, as a colleague of a different quality than the colleague who his offering the accommodation, as a breeder.

What often happens with the marginalized, is that they find enclaves of their own kind with which to commiserate and, in a sense, take shelter. Geographic ethnic enclaves, for example, provide this opportunity: Chinatown, Little Italy, Little India, Hasidic communities, and so forth provide similar shelter for ingroup members at a larger level. This results in the second way motherhood is marked in a conversation through in depth discussion about motherhood, parenting, kids, babies, pregnancy. Conversations that mark the status of the communicators as breeders. Sharing stories, advices, photos. Colleagues here are also transitioned to breeders but as ingroup members bonding over their shared experiences at home, and potentially, as marginalized within the workplace. Though comforting to the ingroup members, their enclave is noticeable by others. Their mark, once an individual mark, is now shared and, perhaps, magnified. One might imagine people singing power anthems as they walk through the office emboldened by the power of the group identity: “Pregnant and Proud of it” “We will not be divided.” Here, though we have transitioned from colleague to breeder, we gain immediate benefits. However, because of our increased visibility, unknown, unforeseeable, and long term costs may be inevitable as we provide our own mark, allowing us to be viewed once again as different, thereby, reinforcing our overall outgroup status from others in the organization.

The most insidious of acts are often the most veiled. The saying about “A wolf in sheep’s clothing,” the well known phrase from the movie The Usual Suspects ,“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist,” or the proverb, “all that glitters is not gold”. Although each of these sayings suggest an intentionality, it isn’t difficult to imagine that things that are pleasant or innocent can often unintentionally veil something less pleasant, less welcoming, less kind than they appear. Such is the case with the last phrase I would like us to consider for the third way motherhood is marked in conversation. The innocent, yet, powerful question:

How’s the baby? How are the kids?

It is worthy of noting that someone who knows you well may not use such a general phrase. They may know the children’s names, for example; they may know specific events to ask about, “how was the movie yesterday (implied that you brought the kids to)? They may know about specific concerns you have related to your kids. “So what happened with the doctor’s appointment?” Someone who knows you well can say the broader phrase, but for argument’s sake, let’s say this more personal approach to small talk is less likely to be heard around the office.

So the use of the broader term “baby” or “kid(s)”, suggests something about the nature of the relationship as not close. Yet the question of “”How’s the baby?” “How are the kids?” in a professional context suggests the interest in finding out more about someone personally. It takes a work relationship and attempts to make the relationship more familiar and casual. It takes those who are not members of each other’s personal ingroups (family or friends) and makes a move toward ingroup status. This is a good thing.

Let’s look at how one might respond to this question. The response can range from one with little depth, “fine” to one with little depth and some appreciation “Fine. Thanks for asking” to an all out update on the latest or cutest things the baby/ kid(s) have done. The depth of the answer will depend on a variety of factors, situational constraints (What anecdote can I provide in two minutes on an elevator?), how public the interaction is (I don’t want to talk about my inverted nipple problem in an elevator filled with colleagues), personality (I’m not the chatty type), and preferences (I hate when people spend all day talking about their kids). The response, to some extent regardless of the depth of it, establishes a connection that implies or creates mutual ingroup status. Again, this is a good thing.

At this point in the conversation what do you think comes next? “How are your kids?” “How is your family?” “your baby?” Indeed there is little option here in what the person should say. The norm of reciprocity suggests equal self disclosure is expected/ required, so if a sender communicates “How’s the baby” to a receiver, the receiver, now the sender, must seek out that same level and quality of information. Grice’s conversational maxims (1989) tell us that we must contribute relevantly to the conversation. Face as Goffman discusses it tells us that this is a moment in which the public self of the person who initiated the conversation is potentially threatened because they have put themselves out on a line by moving beyond the professional focus of most workplace conversations to ask a personal question and the way the question is answered can further threaten or instead save their face. In sum, in this moment, there is a requirement for a response that must be of a certain kind- on a similar topic and seeking a similar amount of self-disclosure.

However, though the initial question suggests some, though meager, familiarity, garnered by the mark that pregnancy makes on a person, that is not mutual. The recipient of the initial question does not know necessarily know the person’s status in terms of parenthood. What’s worse- it is a potential mind-field of the unknown. Does this person have kids? (that would make the conversation proceed more smoothly and easily because we’re both ingroup members, both breeders). But the risks of asking are steep. Because if the person doesn’t have kids, the unknown of ‘why not’ floats through the air. If not, why not?

-They didn’t want them? (they don’t personally find value in an experience that I just had)
-They couldn’t have them? (I’m potentially being invasive)
-They had children who died or who are currently ill? (I’m potentially bringing up a difficult subject)
-They’re too young/old to have kids? (I’m not like them)

Any of these answers, position the receiver as an outgroup members. Any reciprocal response takes what was momentarily ingroup status to outgroup status once again. It creates a distinction between the breeder colleague and the colleague.

So another route is to ask about work related issues as a way to reciprocate and seek equal self-disclosure on related topics and maintain face. You might ask, equally broadly: how’s work? Or more specifically: How are your projects going? How is the committee work going? This shifts the conversation, however, from the personal back to the professional. It closes the door previously opened to establishing a more personal relationship. It places a qualitative distinction between the topics you can discuss as a breeder colleague and the topics the other person can discuss as a colleague. It places their value on their workplace contributions rather than on anything personal about them. It creates a distinction as outgroup members between the breeder and the colleague.

The conversation can be complete at this point or, more likely, will be after a brief response of varying depth about the conversation initiator’s own baby, kids, family, projects, or other work topci. The requirements for reciprocation, speaking on topic, and maintaining face that the interactants were bound by when the initiator originally said “How’s the baby?” are fulfilled.

So in either way of responding to that innocuous question, the recipient of the question inevitably positions herself as a breeder. In the best case scenario the result is the production of two people who are ingroup members, though no longer colleagues but breeders. In the worst case scenario the response produces outgroup members who are no longer colleagues but one is a researcher/ hard worker and the other is a breeder. The insidiousness is embedded in conversational norms in which the question requires the receiver of the question to position themselves as the breeder, as an outgroup member, and at worst as a noncontributing member of their workplace community potentially invoking stereotypes associated with breeders.

The mark of motherhood has implications for whether another or mother-to-be is viewed as a breeder or a colleague. It opens up the opportunity for an innocent question- pleasant, welcoming, and kind- to require a mother or potential mother to position herself as an outgroup member in a professional context in which there are high stakes at risk (e.g., employment, raises, promotions) depending on how people view that person’s value to the organization. Unfortunately for the mother or mother-to-be, the breeder stereotype, as implied in the three ways motherhood is marked in conversation in the workplace, describes the breeder as incapable of doing her job without assistance, not able to talk of/focus on nothing else than the topic of children, and necessarily less invested in work than her colleague.

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  1. October 24th, 2011 at 15:03

    As a breeder in action(I am 6 months pregnant) I do notice many people “sympathizing” with my state instead of being joyous about it. I am completely capable of carrying my groceries, toting around my 3 and 5 yo, and working. I feel some women like being coddled and concerned about, which is totally not my personality. Yes, pregnancy is uncomfortable at times and there comes a time during the pregnancy when one physically cannot complete daily tasks without a little help, but for the most part, we can all suck it up and continue on with life.

    I work from home now, but when I was in an office setting, I found many breeders would take advantage of their pregnant state (or people with children at home) and use their personal situations as excuses for being late, not getting work done, etc.. This ruins it for the rest of the hardworking people in an organization. Of course, life and unexpected emergencies happen, but one should not take advantage of an employers understanding nature.

  2. December 18th, 2011 at 22:52

    Definitely great food for thought. Somewhat related topic, I remember someone pointing out to me about how people tend to have to talk about themselves, intrude themselves in conversation by relating some similar thing that happened to them, a lot of “oh me too. I know what you’re talking about, when this happened to me this is what I did,etc. why do people feel the need to mention their own similar experiences or even imply they are experts on something the other person is new to, ( such as pregnancy especially) Why indeed do people feel they ought to connect with the other person that way instead of asking the person more about their unique experience? It seems to be a universal way people communicate to somehow join the other person as part of their group- happens all the time between breeders. Anyway I could see why this person was critical of the egocentric way people tend to communicate, but on the other hand it is how many people form connections and identify themselves as part of some subgroup…

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