Heidi Be Thy Name


The title of this post has two sources: Anne Lamott, who is Christian and frequently discusses religion in a way that works to make us all laugh and not think all Christians compete in the Hatelymics; she says she has a friend who calls God “Howard…as in Howard Be Thy Name.” The other source is what is nicknamed “the Heidi/Howard study”–recently mentioned in Lean In and thus on lots of blogs. Here’s my paraphrase of Lean In’s gist: If you tell people a story about a successful entrepreneur named Howard, they think that person is competent and likable. If you show people the same story about a successful entrepreneur named Heidi, they think that person is competent and NOT likable.*

When I think about racial justice and the ways white denial works to impede its progress**, I feel angry. When I think about pervasive, systemic, cultural preference for men, I find I’m angry, yes, but also heartbroken, because–and I don’t have a snappy phrase like “white denial” for what breaks my heart (maybe “unexamined collusion”?)– I encounter this bias, internalized, in women. And I’m not heartbroken for some imaginary woman–I’m heartbroken for specific ones, and for myself, because I’m more conscious than I was a year ago, but less conscious than I will be a year from now (I hope), and it’s both sad and glorious to think about how my ability to self-determine now, as at all times, is contingent upon my understanding of the broader forces that act on me–who has power, what they do with it; who gets hired, for what jobs, and how they are evaluated; who runs for office, and why, and who gets elected; who makes laws, and based on what worldview; basically, who is considered default-human***–and, too, how my understanding is finite and constrained. So Heidi Be Thy Name, and Heidi Be My Name, and if you aren’t sure, YES, that H in the doodle is two women hula-hooping together and holding hands. Sometimes my heart breaks more in the cracked-open weepy breathy joy kind of way, with women who hold my hand and hula-hoop with me, laughing and pointing and crying and making art at the goddamn patriarchy.

I’m going to borrow and use two terms from the way those awesome Critical Race Psychologists discussed the factors that influence whether we perceive racial bias, because they resonate with my experience of gender bias perceptions as well: identity-defensiveness (so, if I think I of myself as an empowered woman, treated well by the men I know, then to acknowledge bias on a systemic level, I have to look at whether the system I believe has worked for me has perhaps done so [if it indeed has] because I have internalized and acted according to its preference for men, and that train of thought is totally identity-threateningly nauseating); and, inhabiting cultural ecologies that promote ignorance of gender bias (so, if I have spent my life in situations micro and macro where gender inequalities are rampant but undiscussed, I will come to assume there is nothing to discuss– that these inequalities reflect something inherently unequal). This helps me think of the “unexamined collusion” in a less fatalistically heartbroken angry way, because now I can be watchful for my own identity-defensiveness, and I can look at my own cultural ecologies with fresh eyes, and I can think about the internalized bias I might perceive in other women as being a psychological rather than a moral issue, which helps me not be such a disdainful jerk wishing I could toothpick their eyelids open in front of an Audre Lorde essay while I very slowly turn the pages.

Ok, so…back to the women holding my hand in the hula hoop. They have helped me become more critically conscious/less unintentionally collusive, and they keep me moving. Some of them I know, and some of them I just read, and a) if you are reading this, I want to hold your hand in a hula hoop, and b) I want to call out some of what has helped me. So that’s what this is really about: “here’s some stuff to read.” Isn’t that at least part of why you are friends with me in the first place? We help each other find stuff to read. I’m not in love with all of this, but it covers a swath. It’s swathy, and all worth reading. So: to it.

What is Gender Bias?

A thorough and straightforward look at the four patterns of gender bias that The Law acknowledges Are Real and Really Suck can be found here. These are subtle (not talking “Girls are Bad at Math” blatancy), uncomfortable, and familiar. Much of the site is good; beyond the “Patterns” section, I appreciated the reflections on the “Double Jeopardy” faced by women of color, and the quiz that made me go “shit: I need to know more.” (I started there, actually. “Shit, I need to know more” is propulsive).

What are the Effects of Gender Bias?

The Wage Gap: a simple infographic

Rates of Employment (hint: not climbing). A nytimes article goes into that; here’s a taste: “As recently as 1990, the United States had one of the top employment rates in the world for women, but it has now fallen behind many European countries. After climbing for six decades, the percentage of women in the American work force peaked in 1999, at 74 percent for women between 25 and 54. It has fallen since, to 69 percent today.”

We’re Assumed to Worry about Something Called Having it All, and Also We Can’t, and Also We Are Sometimes Crappy to Each Other About it, Despite Best Intentions, Because The Narrative is All a Mess: Anne-Marie Slaughter problematizes Lean In’s ideas in a way I found useful, in The Atlantic. A few excerpts:  A similar assumption underlies Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s widely publicized 2011 commencement speech at Barnard, and her earlier TED talk, in which she lamented the dismally small number of women at the top and advised young women not to “leave before you leave.” When a woman starts thinking about having children, Sandberg said, “she doesn’t raise her hand anymore … She starts leaning back.” Although couched in terms of encouragement, Sandberg’s exhortation contains more than a note of reproach. We who have made it to the top, or are striving to get there, are essentially saying to the women in the generation behind us: “What’s the matter with you?”[…]

The best hope for improving the lot of all women, and for closing what Wolfers and Stevenson call a “new gender gap”—measured by well-being rather than wages—is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives**** and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone […]

[…]After a few months of this, several female assistant professors showed up in my office quite agitated. “You have to stop talking about your kids,” one said. “You are not showing the gravitas that people expect from a dean, which is particularly damaging precisely because you are the first woman dean of the school.” I told them that I was doing it deliberately and continued my practice, but it is interesting that gravitas and parenthood don’t seem to go together.

Some Claim We Could Solve the Whole Problem if We’d Just Be More Confident…and Also, We Are Overtly Penalized for Confidence: The Confidence Gap, also in The Atlantic. This one is a nice illustration of how so much of what’s written on gender bias has lots of room for problematizing (and let’s read it all anyway)…most of it goes “Hey Ladies, ya gotta just be more CONFIDENT, OK??” but then there is an acknowledgement of the way women are penalized for confidence. So it’s a weird piece but worth a look, if just for the latter half. A taste:  

Consider the following tale of two employees. A female friend of ours in New York was supervising two 20‑something junior staffers, one female (whom we will call Rebecca) and one male (whom we will call Robert).[…]Our friend was struck by how easily Robert engaged her, and how markedly different his behavior was from that of Rebecca, with whom she’d worked for several years. Rebecca still made appointments to speak with her and always prepared a list of issues for their discussions. She was mostly quiet in meetings with clients, focused as she was on taking careful notes. She never blurted out her ideas; she wrote them up with comprehensive analyses of pros and cons. Rebecca was prepared and hardworking, and yet, even though our friend was frequently annoyed by Robert’s assertiveness, she was more impressed by him. She admired his willingness to be wrong and his ability to absorb criticism without being discouraged. Rebecca, by contrast, took negative feedback hard, sometimes responding with tears and a trip to her own office to collect herself before the conversation could continue. Our friend had come to rely on and value Rebecca, but she had a feeling it was Robert’s star that would rise.[…] Here’s a thorny question: If Rebecca did behave just like Robert, exhibiting his kind of confidence, what would her boss think then? There is evidence that Rebecca wouldn’t fare so well, whether her boss was male or female.[…]

[…] In Brescoll’s next experiment, men and women rated a fictitious female CEO who talked more than other people. The result: both sexes viewed this woman as significantly less competent and less suited to leadership than a male CEO who talked for the same amount of time. When the female CEO was described as talking less than others, her perceived competency shot up. 

One way this shows up is in how women’s performance evaluations look different than men’s. See this article for a concise linguistic analysis of the actual words used in performance reviews. A taste: “Perhaps unsurprisingly critical feedback was doled out in a much higher ratio to women: 58.9% of men’s reviews contained critical feedback, while an overwhelming 87.9% of the reviews received by women did. Not only did women receive more criticism in their performance reviews, it was less constructive and more personal. For example, the critical feedback men received was mostly geared toward suggestions to develop additional skills.”

Political Representation: Have you seen Miss Representation? It’s not perfect but it’ll make you realize what “80% White, 80% Male” means for Congress, and you can show it to girls you know.

Ok! That’s it for this time. Note: these are not the most radical things, and I’m actually drawn to the most radical things, because I learn more from them…still, I think sometimes the hula hoop can feel exclusionary if it’s perceived as a place of denunciation of men, which these mainstream pieces more studiously avoid the appearance of than some radical thinkers. Also: there is a lot to be said about how gender bias interacts with narrow definitions of masculinity in a way that hurts men too: this isn’t that post, but one will be someday.


I like that definition 2. Heidi Be Thy Name, Heidi Be My Name, Heidi Be Our Name. Our queendom come!` Our will be…if not done, at least held to be self-evidently equal: as authors, as agents.

See you in the hoop!


*This is pat; the Lean In version might be too. It got my dander up for sure but I’d want to read the actual study and critiques thereof…and strangely, I can’t really find the actual study.

**“Dismantling Racism” (pg. 50-53) puts good language to this, borrowing from Kivel.

***Given that it was white men who started making big distinctions between Humans and The Other Things, and those white men meant that they and only they were Humans in this nice new way (i.e. were actively legislating to deny equal rights to women and people of color), there is some question as to whether the historically dispossessed should bother reclaiming the agency denied them as “human-as-defined-by-old-racist-guys” and maybe just claim a much more meaningful kind of agency. Would you like to know more? Ask Erin Forbes!

****Of course: there are women executives. And still: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/report/2014/03/07/85457/fact-sheet-the-womens-leadership-gap/

`Audre Lorde: “All our children are outriders for a queendom not yet assured.” (Sister Outsider; beyond recommended. You won’t need toothpicks.)

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