Skills gap

Jul. 7th, 2014 01:44 pm
liv: Composite image of Han Solo and Princess Leia, labelled Hen Solo (gender)
[personal profile] liv
I'm bad at really a lot of things that women are expected to be good at. Some of them don't matter very much: clothes, make-up, fashion, personal adornment in general, for example. This doesn't matter to me because I'm cis, so people rarely challenge whether I'm "really" female, and I have a weak sense of gender identity so I don't feel hurt, weird or dysphoric if people do in fact think I'm unfeminine. And it's easy to dismiss looking pretty as just superficial; certainly my professional life doesn't depend on succeeding at it.

Lots more stuff in this category consists of valuable skills, but ones that men get away with being mediocre at, so although I would like to improve I don't worry very much that I'm below average compared to women if I'm at a level that's fairly typical for men in my society. Things like cooking and baking, housekeeping, fabric arts, domestic sphere type stuff. Being able to cook, clean and sew are in fact important, and they're devalued precisely because they're seen as "feminine". But I'm pretty sure if I were male I would be praised for keeping my living space as clean and tidy as I do, for being able to cook a decent if not extensive range of nutritious and tasty meals, for being able to sew on buttons and carry out minor clothing repairs. To some extent you could say the same thing about appearance-related stuff; in our particular society, men aren't expected to know how to put on make-up or wear a range of different clothes carefully matched to the formality of various situations, so these things are considered unimportant, not because they actually are.

The third category is where I'm more concerned about my deficiencies. I guess you could broadly call it social or communication skills. Empathy, intuition, emotional communication. I want to be better at these things primarily because I'd do better in life and be less likely to inadvertently hurt people, not really because women are "supposed" to be good at them.

I think I missed out on what feminists describe as female socialization. I remember trying to read Dale Spender and getting completely impatient with the way nothing she described about how women are "taught" to communicate bore any relationship to my reality. I'm loud, I expect my opinions and ideas to be taken seriously, I usually say what I think without hedging or prevaricating. I suppose as a child I did sometimes get criticism for being loud on a literal level, sometimes explicitly on gender grounds – my voice does carry – but it never really took. I still sometimes get glared at because people can hear my speaking voice too well over the general background noise on a train or in a restaurant. Mostly this is a good thing because my style of communication is considered prestigious, if sometimes masculine.

The problem is that my natural communication style is also seen as asserting dominance, precisely because it's associated with prestige / masculine approaches. So I end up unintentionally talking over or even silencing people, either because they're more traditionally feminine than me or because they come from high context cultures and find it difficult to be assertive in discussions. Consistently a small proportion of my students write in my evaluations that they find me intimidating, for example. I think I'm basically unsafe in consciousness raising women's (and minority) safe spaces, because everything that such spaces find problematic about how high-status patriarchal men communicate... is exactly how I communicate :-(

Also I run into conflict with other people sometimes, because they think I'm trying put them down. It's not something that happens all the time, but it does happen enough that I think it's probably a pattern and one I should try to address. It seems to be most common with women who identify strongly with their female gender, in particular American feminists of the school that focuses on raising the value of feminine-coded stuff (as opposed to those who focus primarily on getting women access to masculine-coded stuff). It can be online or in person, I'm trying to express enthusiasm and interest in someone's ideas, and she (usually she) thinks I'm attacking her or patronizing her or otherwise being aggressive. And when I become aware of these miscommunications my attempts to explain make it worse, because I use lots of words in a confident, assertive way and don't successfully signal respect and goodwill.

Does anyone have any advice for how to get better at this? I'd be especially interested in suggestions from other women who had to explicitly learn to communicate in feminine-coded ways as adults. (Some feminists erroneously assume that this category perfectly overlaps with trans women, but it clearly doesn't, some trans women have always communicated in what society sees as feminine styles, some trans women don't care if their communication is perceived as feminine, and I'm sure I'm not the only cis woman who finds herself in the position of needing to learn this.) I'd also like to hear from male friends about whether you ever think about balancing your communication style to avoid dominating over women and minorities, and if so, what you do.

I think it's not just avoiding hurting people and causing conflicts, it's being better at the emotional rather than factual side of communication. I am often bad at reading what kind of mood someone is in, and at expressing sympathy and kindness and support rather than trying to come up with practical fixes for people's problems. I know that it's stereotyped as masculine to react in that way, but for me, gender completely aside, it's very useful to be aware of the distinction between fixing type support and reassurance type support, because I can at least ask which someone prefers rather than assuming fixing is the only option. I have essentially no "intuition" and little ability to read body language, I need people to tell me directly about their emotional state, something I know many people find uncomfortable.

Online tests often tell me I'm borderline for an autistic spectrum condition, but I think this is the wrong way of looking at things, I'm pretty sure I'm allistic / neurotypical. Certainly I have no problem using resources aimed at helping people on the spectrum to deal better with allistic-style communication, because I would in fact like to get better at this whether I'm allistic or not, and also I do well with explicit rules and strategies anyway. However, a lot of these tests are based on Simon Baron-Cohen's flawed research and sexist assumptions about what autism actually is. Also, yes, I am very good at abstract reasoning and a certain kind of pattern matching (I tend to score off the scale on traditional IQ tests), and relatively bad at looking at pictures of people's faces and guessing what emotion they're pretending to portray, and yes, this is a typical pattern of strengths / deficits in many people on the spectrum. But that doesn't mean that everybody who happens to have those strengths and deficits is autistic. I'm particularly annoyed because if I lie to the tests and tell them I'm male, they say I'm normal; if how I am is normal-for-men it makes no sense to suddenly decide it's pathological because women are "supposed" to be more empathetic and less good at abstract reasoning.

I wonder if there's some of this going on in the ways I get into trouble for being bad at certain kinds of communication. People expect me to be nice and emotionally aware and tentative about expressing my own opinions, because they see me as female, so when I communicate in ways that would (possibly, I'm speculating here) be seen as normal for men of my background, it's seen as aggressive. Be that as it may, I'd like to get better at coming across as friendly and kind and respectful, if possible.
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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