A quick note about sexism, psychology, activism and history

So, my father happens to be a psychologist, and because of this, I happen to be more aware of trends in psychology than I might otherwise be.  Over dinner tonight, we were talking about institutional sexism, and I was pointed towards a few articles that seem to echo many of the claims made by gender theorists about how gender effects perceptions of individuals’ social value and utility.  One argues that among men who demonstrate some gender bias, sexist jokes were more likely than not to prime listeners to discriminate against women – in this study discrimination was measured by inclination to fund charities that benefited women. (More than “just a joke”…)  The other uses social psychology tools to make an argument for why things that are gendered female are valued less  than things that are gendered male. (Glick and Fiske in Revisioning Gender.)  I am still working my way through these, but on first blush they seem to confirm a lot of what gender theorists (and others) have been saying about perceptions of gender norms and discrimination.

The contention that “sex is the primary category by which people automatically classify others” (Glick, Fiske) seems a lot like the claim that we need to think about issues of gender when pursuing projects of social justice, to think about how gender intersects with other categories (race, class, age), how the negatives in those categories are feminized or masculaized and how that gendering denotes value.  For instance – women who exhibit aggressive behavior “are penalized for being successful in domains that are considered to be male, and are disliked and interpersonally derogated as a consequence.” (Madeline Heilman, Sex bias in work settings project description) Similarly, the notion that sexist jokes are bad for perceptions of and reactions to women is a common-place assertion for people (wonderfully demonstrated in many ways at Shakesville) who talk about rape culture and how it is perpetuated.  In fact, a lot of what psychologists of gender are saying seems to sync with what activists and gender theorists have been saying for awhile.

At the AHA before last, at a panel on the history of emotion, the suggestion was floated that historians and psychologists might benefit from working with one another.  I think that we might add activists to the mix, both to give us more tools to de-center the oft-poorly-reported evo-psych stories that perpetuate tired gender stereotypes without much cause, but also as a means of connecting the people who are approaching the same problems from different perspectives.  This is not, by the way, an argument for “science justifies arguments that other people have been making for awhile, but only with the addition of science are those arguments valid.”  Also, the discussion of how certain disciplines are valued and gendered is an important one, but for another day.  I know that my work has  benefited from social scientific and psychological work on philanthropy and social obligation, and this brief foray into psychological studies of gender suggests the same is true for other fields as well.   Perhaps this is already happening – in which case, I’d love to hear about interdisciplinarity in action, but if it’s not I think we (wearing my academic hat) need to make a better effort.

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