What Does Discrimination Look Like? Part II

November 3rd, 2011 | Categories: Gender

In my article “What Does Discrimination Look Like?” I provided an obvious example of discrimination. An example few could overlook and most would be too politically correct to say let alone write. Although the example I provided in that article was appropriate, I clarified that most discrimination is more subtle.

As an extension of that article, this article highlights an example that is representative of the way discrimination most often occurs. In this example as in, unfortunately, too many others, discrimination is so subtle it takes a researcher to dissect it. It is this kind of discrimination that haunts its victims because they may often, though not always, find it difficult to identify and explain to others. Yet, they know that discrimination is operating against them.

Consider the following example. It is a paragraph from a letter in which feedback is given about a teacher whose job is at stake. The gender discrimination exposed here is based on the stereotype of women as nurturing. The key, easily overlooked, is the subtle phrase “qualities important for connecting with students” on the fifth line.

This statement, “qualities important for connecting with students” is not presented as a compliment although it may initially give that appearance. Instead it is a backhanded compliment that is used to dismiss aspects of the teacher’s communication style by way of invoking the stereotype of women as nurturing. Helen Haste in her famous work, The Sexual Metaphor, discusses the stereotype of women as nurturing extensively and the ways in which this stereotype undermines women because it makes nurturing an assumed and indeed required basic attribute of a female. Consider the times you have expected a woman to take care of a child and are surprised when a man does so even to the point of complimenting the man for doing so.

The first aspect of the stereotype of women as nurturing that works against women is that it is taken for granted that a woman behaves this way. For example, I hear repeatedly how much of a wonderful father my husband is. He does not hear this as often about me. It may be that I am a terrible mother. However, the insights I have gleaned from Haste (and from my husband) give me reason to think otherwise. I would argue that, instead, it is because I am a woman and it is assumed that I take the role of nurturing mother. As such, I should not get accolade for being nurturing. It is not something, according to the stereotype, that as a mother I work on or exert effort to do. It is something that I am assumed, indeed required to do, by my very biological nature. This biological essentialism mirrors that inherent in the stereotype of Asians as smart.

If an Asian student earns good grades particularly in math, they are often not personally given credit for it regardless of how hard the exam was or how much time the student spent studying. After all, according to the stereotype, “they are Asian” and the stereotype assumes that they are naturally more capable at math and “probably didn’t even need to study to get A’s.” This stereotype is so strong that it is considered one factor in the rates of suicides among Asians.

A second aspect of the stereotype of nurturing that works against women is that nurturing, because it is a stereotypically feminine characteristic, is undervalued (by both men and women). As such, to be nurturing as a woman is to not only do something that is expected but to also do something that is not valued. The presumption of the paragraph in the image is that the female teacher is nurturing and that this is the only reason students like the teacher. Any other characteristics the teacher has are subsumed under nurturing and are, thus, equally undervalued. This happens twice at key points.

First, in the opening sentence a teaching award is dismissed as only an indication that “some students” value her teaching. Assuming that the award was earned by a majority vote, then it would seem using the phrase “some students” is an understatement used to trivialize the award.

Second, in the final sentence all of the characteristics that are discussed previously are dismissed as unimportant with the phrase “only one facet of teaching.” The “one facet” is a reference to the key phrase “qualities important for connecting with students.” The use of the phrase “one facet” allows all of the characteristics of the teacher discussed in the paragraph to be collapsed and packaged together as aspects of nurturing and quickly and neatly dismissed. If you take another look you will see the paragraph discusses various aspects of fer teaching:
-able to communicate well
-enthusiastic and excited about her subject matter
-knowledgeable of her subject matter
-willing to teach introductory (i.e., less desirable) courses
-prepares students well for upper level courses
-able to motivate students to want to take additional courses with her
-accessible in person and electronically
-able to encourage students to seek her out so that they crowd around her office
-willing to offer advice and consultation on student papers and coursework

These characteristics are varied and representative of what anyone would value in a college professor. Particularly, a college would benefit from a professor who is knowledgeable about her subject matter and prepares students well for upper level courses. Yet, these characteristics are dismissed as merely aspects of the stereotypically female characteristic of nurturing. As such they are taken-for-granted. No credit is given to the instructor for any work required to develop and sharpen these teaching skills. Instead the teacher is discussed as if these skills are merely aspects of “connecting” with students, a basic innate attribute for a female professor. The characteristics subsumed under nurturing are undervalued by being treated as a single characteristic that is not integral to teaching.

Book-ending the paragraph with the initial use of the word “connecting” and concluding with the two dismissals of the professors teaching is a brilliant, if decidedly sexist and discriminatory thing to do. It allows the stated characteristics of her teaching to be bundled together as nurturing and neatly thrown away. And indeed, the story didn’t end well for the teacher.

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