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Rachel Dempsey

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Why Don't Women Raise Their Hands More?

Posted: 09/17/2012 5:18 pm

On the first day of my Constitutional Law class, the professor asked a lecture hall full of sixty-something first-year law students how many of us knew about the Glorious Revolution. About a dozen people raised their hands. Every one of them was a man.

Here's what I know about the Glorious Revolution: It happened in England. Probably in the 17th century, although I'm not totally sure about that. Some king got overthrown by some other king. There were Catholics involved. Chances are good, though, that that's all the guys who raised their hands knew about the Glorious Revolution, too, with one or two possible exceptions.

So why did they raise their hands when I didn't?

Studies have shown that men are more likely than women to project confidence when they're uncertain, and that women are particularly hesitant when they're being asked a question regarding a traditionally male domain. That the law is a traditionally male domain is hard to forget in a Constitutional Law class. After all, it's not until the Nineteenth Amendment that we even get the right to vote, and from the establishment of the Supreme Court in 1787, it's another 194 years before we get a decision with any input from a woman. The Declaration of Independence, which we read for the first day of class, assures us that "all men are created equal." At the time it was written, most people really believed women aren't.

But that's ancient history, right? My law school class is somewhere around 50% women. So why don't us ladies just get over it and speak up? Unfortunately, when you look at the cognitive biases behind gender stereotypes -- as I've been doing for the last year while working on the New Girls' Network project -- women's caution comes to seem like a survival mechanism, not a weakness.

At the New Girls' Network, we've named this the Prove-it-Again! pattern of gender bias. While men are more likely to be judged on their potential in professional settings, women are more likely to be judged by their achievements. In a related pattern, men's mistakes are overlooked and soon forgotten while women's mistakes are noticed and remembered. It's actually riskier for a woman to project confidence than for a man -- her credentials and claims to competence are more precarious, and her mistakes are more likely to be interpreted as a sign of fundamental failing.

Social psychology and cognitive bias play out on a large scale. My Constitutional Law professor didn't follow up on his survey by calling on one of the raised hands to describe. If he had, and a woman had raised her hand and given a wrong answer, would she be known forever as that girl who got the Glorious Revolution confused with the Hundred Years' War? Probably not, which is why it's easy to dismiss these patterns.

But the demographics my female classmates and I face after graduation, while also on a large scale, will play out in very personal ways. We will enter law firms near parity with our male peers, but by the equity partner they will outnumber us 85 men to every 15 women. (By the time we're all at this level, these proportions could have changed, but they've been static for about 20 years.)

We're all here, men and women alike, because we believe in our own futures. But the science of cognitive bias indicates that the problems we wish we'd overcome are still shaping our lives in ways that are hard to see. It's important for us all to understand that, lest women internalize the effects of bias as personal failings or men take their confidence to be earned rather than granted.

 
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