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Eye Contact and Power: Work Advice for Women

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EYES
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According to Dr. Virginia Valian, Professor of Psychology and Linguistics at Hunter College and author of Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, where you look during social interactions clearly indicates your status, and more often than not, women tend to come across as "subservient" when talking with men.

I learned this and a whole lot more about the state of gender equality in the U.S. during a lecture at New York University last week. Valian -- backed by studies and data from psychology, sociology, economics and biology accumulated over many years -- posed this question:

"Why do so few women occupy positions of power and prestige?"

During her lecture, Valian concluded that:

  • gender stereotypes -- often invisible and unconscious, which she calls "schemas" -- continue to hinder the advancement of women in all fields;
  • women are just as inclined to hold deeply ingrained stereotypical views of other women, as men; and,
  • change -- while always happening -- is very slow, indeed.

Of course women have "come a long way, baby" these last few decades, working through glass ceilings instead of those made from marble ... but her research clearly shows that gender stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in our psyches that even the most ardent supporters of gender equality can run into trouble.

Men and women unconsciously cling to stereotyping that creates small differences in how we evaluate and judge men and women, Valian told the audience. Those small imbalances accumulate over time, giving an advantage to men and a disadvantage to women. The most important consequence of gender schemas for professional life is that men tend to be overrated and women underrated and undervalued.

With research culled from hundreds of studies to support her premise, Valian asserts that both men and women assume men are automatically more competent. Competence is seen as the "norm" for men and something that women must work very hard to prove. Further, women are viewed as "less likable" as they became "more competent."

The end result? Women continue to be underpaid, underemployed and are given fewer opportunities for advancement and promotion. This is across all sectors, and is especially apparent in fields that are considered "traditionally male," such as engineering.

One might automatically assume that women are offered fewer opportunities for advancement as a "natural byproduct" of raising children, but Valian's research shows that even women who are childless are sabotaged.

These real life dramas are often played out in a common professional setting -- the meeting. Valian's research, and the experience of many of us, supports that women, generally, are listened to much less in meetings than are their male counterparts. The "accumulative advantage" to men vs. the "accumulative disadvantage" to women is clear. In her book, Valian describes a typical scenario:

Through observing the group dynamics, I learn who has high status and who does not. By the time the meeting ends, people who were equal in my eyes when it began are now unequal. Those whose remarks were ignored have suffered a small loss in prestige, and their contributions have been labeled, implicitly, as low in value. Because they now have less prestige, they will be listened to less in the future; they will carry their previously earned labels into the next professional encounter, losing a little more standing with each negative experience. The gap between them and people who are gaining attention for their remarks will widen as their small initial failures accrue and make future failures more likely.

Women will often remain silent during meetings, adding to their accumulative disadvantage, because they've learned that being ignored can be humiliating and painful.

Of course, this is not true of all women, or all men, and Valian went to great pains to make that clear during her talk. There are many powerful women who have built incredibly successful careers, and there are many men who are not in favor of ignoring women. However, she strongly advises that we not be lulled into thinking that all is well by these success stories. It is not. The problem is still very much a part of the social, psychological, and economic fabric of American life.

What can we do?

  • Be aware of the stereotypes -- Since women are not accumulating advantages as quickly as men, due in great part to the stereotyping we all continue to do, we need to first, acknowledge that they exist, and second, agree to change them.
  • Teach our children -- Children are the next generation of men and women and it is our responsibility to make them understand that stereotyping exists and they are often based on wrong information about people.
  • Make demands on the media -- Television, movies, ads, magazines and other media perpetuate the stereotypes. Demand that the media becomes more responsible with how women and men are presented.
  • Be an agent of change if you are in a leadership position -- If you have power to control meetings and other interactions between men and women, be aware of how stereotyping -- including your own -- can have an impact.
So, how can "where we look" affect the balance of power?

Interestingly enough, in a social interaction between two people, the person who is considered the "dominant" one will look at the other person more when she/he is the one doing the talking, and will more often look away when the other person is talking.

Conversely, the "subservient" one tends to look away frequently when she/he is the one doing the talking, but will fix on the other person's face when the other is talking.

Not surprisingly, according to Valian's referenced research, women are usually in the "subservient" position when engaged in a social exchange with a man.

Far too often the response women get when they complain about these scenarios is: "That's not a big deal. Stop making a mountain out of a molehill." But, what this advice fails to recognize is that mountains are just a bunch of accumulated molehills ... piled one on top of the other.

Eventually the mountain of molehills will tumble.

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