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Gender Matters: Cases of Mistaken . . . Gender

Gender perception studies have shown that humans are experts in correctly identifying faces as male or female. They’re so good that researchers amuse themselves by seeing if adults can still get it right when they see only the bottom half of the face, or the eyebrows, or upside faces. Mostly, they can. And they’re fast. They make this assessment in less than one-tenth of a second. I suppose sex is behind this somehow, but I’ll leave the explanation to someone else. Regardless of why, we can conclude: Gender matters. As one researcher wrote, “Perceiving gender is something that humans do automatically and we cannot stop, even if we try to. When we are unable to determine the gender of another person, it radically changes our behavior.” Some recent experiences underline her point.

The unworldly don’t realize how hard it is to fool people, and young heterosexuals use dress, hair, and makeup to make their gender crystal-clear. A young girl dresses in short skirts and shorts to emphasize the length of her leg and adds high heels to further lengthen the illusion. She enhances la différence with push-up bras, visible cleavage and surgical enhancement. Makeup makes her lips redder, lashes longer, and cheeks pinker. She’ll shave, wax, pluck, and laser. Macho males pull in the opposite direction, cutting their hair short, growing facial hair, and displaying muscles and body hair. The adventurous stretch the rules, boys who grow their hair long or sport earrings, and girls who dress in combat boots, but those are flirtations with unconventionality rather than real cross-dressing. In most cases, they don’t really want to be mistaken for the opposite sex. It’s too important.

Our preoccupation with getting it right is further exploited by the entertainment world’s titillating representation of the relatively rare cases of transexualism. Singers, actors, scriptwriters and directors turn to sexual ambiguity again and again. The androgynous photo of Patti Smith on the cover of her Horses album in the sixties drew immediate attention. The Crying Game, a British film, became famous for its revelation that a female character turns out to be (gasp!) male. The popular movie, Boys Don’t Cry, about a transboy, further stirred the mix by casting an actress in the lead role, for which she won an Oscar. Based on a true story, the boy was killed by his male companions after they discovered he was anatomically female.

Do we ever get it wrong in the business world? Hysterical dramatization aside, it certainly does, and the subsequent confusion and embarrassment reveal our underlying attitudes about gender roles. Several stories have crossed my path lately that show how differently we treat the two genders and how far we are from being ‘gender-blind.’

I’ll go first. I attended a women’s conference recently where a man approached my table during the evening mixer. I made a point to smile at him and invite him to sit down. Imagine my surprise, when I looked at him more closely a few minutes later and realized that he was a woman! I had been fooled by the masculine haircut and name, ambiguous dress and body build, but I might have picked up on her rather stylish earrings. I ruefully thought back to my erroneously generous attempt to make ‘him’ feel welcome.

A membership director recounted an episode in which the incorrect gender classification took place because of email. She works for a professional women’s organization, so virtually all of her contacts are female. When a person with an Indian name contacted her by email to get involved with the organization, my colleague assumed that she was female. They communicated multiple times, arranging to get together the next time they were in the same city, before my colleague became clued in that her correspondent was in fact male. She became alarmed upon this discovery and pored back through all of her emails to the man, scrutinizing them for inappropriate and embarrassing disclosures. In her judgment, she had made numerous mistakes, striking a light-hearted and friendly tone that she would not have used if she had known her correspondent was male. In particular, she was horrified to see that she had gaily proposed that they get together for a glass of wine at the next opportunity.

A high-tech manager (male) at the recent conference told me of another confusion that arose because of email. He had advertised for a high-level programmer and began working remotely with a talented individual by the name of Shannon. Although he feels now as though he should have figured it out sooner given her “exceptional” coding skills, he was misled by the name and assumed that his co-worker was female. As they traded code back and forth over the course of several months, his misperception persisted. Finally, something in the programmer’s email alerted him, and he discovered that Shannon was a fairly common male name in Ireland, the programmer’s country of origin.

Like the membership director, the manager pulled out all his correspondence to see if there were instances where he would have corresponded differently had he been aware of his co-worker’s true gender. He told me he didn’t see a lot that he would have changed, but he did notice that he had never invited the co-worker to go for a drink if he ever passed through town. He told me he certainly would have done so if he had known his co-worker was male, as that was his habit with other contract employees. When I delicately tried to suggest that it might be okay to have a drink with a female colleague, he stared at me. “What, you want me to hang out a huge red flag?” he said, shocked.

These episodes make me wish we were less preoccupied with gender and that we could treat each other more equally. It would surely be a better world if my membership director could enjoy a harmless glass of wine with a new member and if the high-tech manager could meet a female co-worker in person. It seems likely that our relationships would be more open and lead to better communication. Restricting informal meetings to members of our own sex certainly puts the opposite gender at a disadvantage, particularly when we apply this biased favoritism to our subordinates.

Here is an even more cautionary tale, again from this weekend’s conference. A young woman disclosed to me that when she joined her small high-tech start up, she was the only female. “But it was okay,” she said. “The way it worked was Act like a boy, Work with the boys, Play with the boys, basically Be a boy.” But she didn’t fool anyone. She explained that when the CEO created his executive committee several years later, he filled all the seats with men, although she out-ranked several in seniority and authority. “I was really surprised,” she said sadly. She got the message and moved on to a different company.

Her experience exposes the darker side of these gender matters, the nonviolent parallel to Boys Don’t Cry, when a woman is punished for her gender. Even if she is gender-blind, or tries to be, her associates are not and may make no attempt to be. As well as she tries to fit in with the other gender, humans will take less than one-tenth of a second to determine her gender and stuff her into its corresponding box. Now, bias has not only resulted in a disappointing restriction of our social relations with our co-workers, it has produced illegal discrimination, withholding a job opportunity from her because of her gender. I began this article thinking the topic could result in an amusing article about misunderstandings, but none of the story-tellers laughed while they told their story.

Copyright © 2013 Jennifer K. Crittenden

Have you experienced a case of mistaken gender? Feel free to leave your story below.

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