“There she goes again.” How often have I heard that? Plenty often. I most often hear it in the workplace. But it is just as frequent in many homes.
It’s a statement that confirms a stereotype of women who are generally touchy, emotional and passive-aggressive because…they are women. Blame it on hormones or any story you choose…the stereotype is that women are simply ‘high maintenance.’
Well, what if that were true? What if survey research and neuroscience converge to generate strong evidence that women’s brains are wired to be more socially and emotionally sensitive, and that most men and women experience women as being both emotionally complicated and indeed, passive-aggressive.
With this kind of research you might feel justified in telling women to “stop whining and just get over it. Assert yourself, be positive, be solution oriented, lift yourself up by your emotional bootstraps and just act like a man. Then you’ll get every opportunity you deserve.”
This kind of thinking is a common logical fallacy that combines attribution error and confirmation bias. Attribution error is mistaking correlation for cause. In this case, it would be to attribute women’s generally higher emotional sensitivity to negative behavior. Once you make that your mental model you will begin to pay attention to any evidence that supports your theory of women. That’s confirmation bias. It’s lethal. Confirmation bias is the cause of nearly all superstition. It works like this.
If I did a rain dance every time there was a dark cloudy sky I would probably notice that it frequently rained after my dance. So instead of attributing the cause of the rain to the moisture-laden clouds I might think I caused the rain by my bodacious dancing. We do this kind of ill-logical thinking all the time because it gives us a false sense of power and control.
Superstitious thinking continues until new evidence creates a more accurate explanation of why it is raining. Our inability to distinguish between correlation and cause is a huge handicap. In the 18th century it was widely believed by expert medical doctors that draining ‘bad’ blood from a patient who was suffering from certain diseases would cure them. When George Washington had a fever he almost died because he was treated by bloodletting. Ironically, the patients who were strong enough to get well in spite of bloodletting were the evidence used by doctors to assert that bloodletting worked. I know, insanity! Medicine had to get a whole new mental model of disease and germ theory before doctors stopped killing their patients.
So spend a minute with me examining why leaders might be contaminated by logical fallacies when they think women act more emotional and more passive aggressive than men. When I’ve asked male leaders, the ones who state these stereotypes, the question “Why do you think women might act that way?” They most often shrug their shoulders and say “they’re women.”
Let’s consider an alternate explanation to both emotional and passive-aggressive behavior and the simply, “it’s a women thing.”
What if the primary reason that people behave in passive-aggressive ways is because of a logical response to feeling vulnerable when they’re in a low-power position?
Okay, now what if you belonged to a class of people who since the dawn of human history…
- could not own property?
- were not considered worth educating?
- could not defend themselves against rape?
- were expected to have as many children as possible at the risk of their own life?
- were expected to be the primary care giver of all the children?
- were prevented from being admitted into professions such as law, architecture and medicine?
- attended churches, where the religious doctrine asserts, wives should be obedient to their husbands even if their husbands were wrong, and all important decisions should be made by men?
Hmm. And what if today…
- there are nearly 500 million girls and women who are illiterate largely because they are considered not worth educating?
- there are 25 million women slaves, and according to UNICEF, 98% of these girls and women slaves are sexually exploited?
- women in many countries are trapped in cycles of poverty without access to housing, property ownership, inheritance or rights of inheritance?
And what if today in our civilized world…
- women held only 14.6% of executive leadership roles?
- women held only 16.9% of corporate board positions?
- women CEOs made only one third of what male CEOs made?
- only 2.7% of venture-capital went to women-lead startups?
- over 80% of women felt held back in their careers because of company policies, a lack opportunity, respect, or inclusion?
What the above list represents is just some of the evidence of systemic disadvantages that women have historically lived under and continue to today.
Psychologists and anthropologists tell us that people who are continually treated unfairly because of who they are rather than what they do are most likely to respond in one of two ways:
- They either take on the identity of powerlessness that makes it nearly impossible to believe that personal changes in their behavior will lead to improved circumstances.
- Or they live with a level of simmering frustration that shows up as passive-aggressiveness. (The whole passive resistance movement led by Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King Jr. in the U.S. shows just how productive passive-aggressive strategies can work in systems with asymmetrical power.)
So here is my point. Women would not act passive-aggressively if they didn’t have to. So if they’re acting that way, look in the mirror. Quit blaming them for the behavior you’re causing!
Anger has a bad reputation. We’re told that anger can actually make us sick, cause hypertension and shorten our lives. But there is a particular kind of anger that is sanctioned by spiritual leaders throughout history. It is the righteous anger that drives the energy of positive change in an unfair world.
The only people in the world who believe everybody gets what they deserve are people who have a lot. Frankly, that makes me mad.
It’s time to open our eyes and create a society and organizations that don’t require passive-aggressiveness to survive. That requires a powerful shift in the status quo mindset. In business organizations it requires a change of policy, structure, and process as well as culture. On the bright side these transformational changes are exactly what enables world-changing success.
But so far not many leaders get it. So I’m going to stay angry. Angry at stereotypes. Angry at unfairness. Angry at ignorance. At least the direction is positive… now if we can only accelerate.