Thursday, March 3, 2011

"Men Help. Women Don't."

So says Susannah Breslin, and if you had had her experience you would be hard put not to draw the same conclusion. Link here.

Even if you are totally committed to a world where gender has passed into desuetude.

Here’s the story: Writer and blogger Susannah Breslin lost her editorial job at a website called: The Frisky. If you don’t know The Frisky, it is dedicated to women’s issues. It’s subtitle is: Love. Life. Stars. Style.

Meaning that Breslin has an audience that contains a large number of women. Breslin also blogs at Forbes, and there she undoubtedly has a goodly number of male readers.

Upon being fired Breslin wrote a post called “Hire Me” for her blog. In it she presented a brief synopsis of her experience and qualifications.

Here’s what happened, in her words: “After my post went live, I linked to it on Facebook and Twitter. I emailed the link to men and women. Men responded by introducing me to someone who was in a position to hire me, by sending me links to job listings that could be a fit, or by directing me to opportunities that resulted in paying work.

“Women responded emotionally — with support or sympathy. Men responded proactively. Women responded passively — or not at all. Every response that led to paying work was from a man.”

We should all be struck by the disparity. In truth, we should all be gobsmacked.

But how could it happen that the responses should be so stereotypically male and female. Were all of those years of gender bending for naught?

And how did happen that men are the more eager to help a woman find gainful employment? Weren’t we all told that men are threatened by working women? What happened to sisterhood solidarity?

Men read of Breslin’s plight and offered to help; they sent her concrete proposals, including one from a man who helped her find her new job as a copywriter.

Women, however, did not even think to address the real issue. They believed that they were being called on to offer sympathy and empathy. Neither of which are of very much help in finding a new job.

As it happens there is nothing wrong with sympathy, or, even empathy, because there are times when sympathy is the only thing you can offer.

We express our sympathies when a friend has lost a loved one. The expression of sympathy implies that there is nothing we can do to change reality, so, we share our feelings and stand among the mourners.

When a person has a real problem, one that might be solved by better management, it is better to offer more than sympathy.

When you limit yourself to an expression of sympathy, you are telling the person that the problem is insoluble, that it is like a death, and that there is nothing that anyone can do.

Unfortunately, expressing sympathy for a problem that might be solved is demoralizing. It feeds depression.

You see where I am going with this, so I will not leave you in suspense. Nowadays sympathy and empathy are the stock-in-trade of the therapy business.

More and more women have been entering the field, and as therapy becomes a woman’s profession, the emphasis has shifted on to more maternal, more empathic, more sympathetic skills. Or, at least, to skills that women are supposed to have in abundance.

At times it helps to have someone who is going to feel you pain. At times you suffer a grievous loss and there really is nothing you can do to bring back your loved one.

But if a therapist applies the same balm to any problem, she is also telling you that your problems cannot be addressed and that reality cannot be changed.

By now most people have gotten the message and they are turning away from therapists and toward coaches. Coaching is more practical in its approach and more positive in its outlook. A coach sees you as a competent person who can manage your problems constructively.

A good coach will help you to expand, to reach out into the world. A therapist will be telling you to pull back and to pull in.

In her job search Susannah Breslin happened to discover someone who was willing to provide some brief coaching. The man recommended that she apply for a job as a copywriter.

Breslin had never thought of herself as a copywriter. She did not even know what the job entailed. Yet, she applied and got the job.

Here is her description of her new job: “Now, I write Facebook and Twitter posts for an inanimate object. You are probably familiar with this inanimate object because it is an iconic American brand. I pretend to be the inanimate object while crafting the Facebook and Twitter posts that are supposed to be from the mind of the inanimate object.

“As it turns out, I am very good at channeling the inner-thoughts of an inanimate object. Or at least this particular one. This part-time, paid-by-the hour job pays more per hour than any job I have ever had.”

Has she found her true calling? Is she now following her passion? Not exactly.

Does she seem to be happy with her new job? I would say Yes. If I may speculate, she is happy because she has found a job doing something that she is good at.

If you are not good at what you are doing you are not going to be happy doing it… regardless of how much passion you have for it or how often you have dreamed of it.

As you read Breslin and quietly rejoice in her good fortune, you are left with a nagging question: what happened to the sisterhood? Why are women so passive, even inert, so unwilling or unable to help another woman?

Haven’t we been on a gender bender for all these many years? Hasn’t the purpose of this gender bender been to disembarrass women of the feminine mystique, the better to help them to work more effectively in the marketplace?

How does it happen that women reacted to Breslin with such utter passivity, with behavior that is almost a caricature of femininity?

It almost seems that women have been induced to deny their femininity, to the point where it can only show itself in a caricatured form, as weakness and disengagement from the real world of work. And even then, only when they are taken by surprise.

If women had known that their reactions would be published as an informal survey, I am sure that they would have offered much more practical advice.

It seems somewhat absurd, to me at least, to think that women cannot offer practical advice when need be. You will not convince me that a woman cannot function effectively in a world where plans need to be made or where guidance needs to be offered.

The problem is, women seem to have absorbed the lesson that such work is masculine and that they cannot do it and remain truly women. When it comes to their femininity, they have been thrown into a state of denial.

They seem to believe that they have to choose between acting like a woman and being an executive, as though there is an inherent contradiction between the two.

They also seem to believe that in order to gain access to the boardroom they must deny something essential about themselves, their femininity. Like the crazy aunt in the attic, this femininity can only show itself when it thinks that no one else is around.

Other parts of the culture have been trying to offer as role models women executives who are both womanly and decisive. Think Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Sarah Palin, and Nicki Haley.

So, if I were to offer an explanation for why only men were willing to help Susannah Breslin, I would say that the fault lies in our culture’s denial of the value of femininity and its failure to allow women to become women in full.


Dennis said...

I wonder how many women act as a mentor for others? All of my mentors have been male. Some of them have been minorities and others have not.

Anonymous said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman, et al.
RE: Not....

We should all be struck by the disparity. In truth, we should all be gobsmacked. -- Stuart Schneiderman


Men tend to want to 'fix' things that are 'broken'. Women, by and large, don't 'fix' things they emote over them.

There's something of a difference.


[If I can't fix it, it's probably dead.]

Anonymous said...

P.S. Why did she lose her 'job' at The Frisky?

Anonymous said...

TO: All
RE: The Woman-Dominated Psychotherapy Trip

Looks like a good reason for you to study for a 'bar exam', i.e., become an up-scale bartender.


[Alcohol! The last gift of the relenting gods. The simple word that makes life's crossword puzzle easier to elucidate. - Lennie Lower]

David Foster said...

I wonder if there are age differences in the pattern of helpers/non-helpers. In general, younger people have been more exposed to the therapeutic culture.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I don't think she knows why she lost her job at The Frisky.

I agree with David, that it would be good to know whether an older generation of women would have suffered less of the influence of therapy and its culture.

Since men do not seem to have been affected, at the most basic level, it seems that women would have suffered the most influence of therapy.

Retriever said...

I don't think it has much to do with a presumed therapy culture. The example you gave probably simply elicited the classic female female competitiveness (which tends to happen between females who don't know each other), and the male chivalrous desire to give concrete aid and support to a damsel in distress...You didn't say if she was pretty? In my experience, the problem solving approach that most men had in this situation was helpful, but in day to day marital discussions, most wives grumble that they don't want their loving husband solving problems FOR them, they just want a sympathetic ear and a hug, then THEY will solve their own problems...

In my own work experience, I found that males were generally more helpful to me than females because of this female/female competitiveness. However, this did not apply with my close female friends (which the example you gave didn't look at). Females form very close alliances (albeit sometimes shifting ones). My female peers at work, in grad school, and fellow conservative bloggers, have been extremely proactive in their suggestions when I was jobhunting or careerchanging. This despite the fact that ALL of them had had extensive long term therapy (sorry, Stuart, not all therapy is frivolous navel gazing: when practiced by psychiatrists with years of psychoanalytic training themselves, it can help people master severe mood disorders and cope with life traumas constructively).

In short, I have had female friends (as well as male friends) who have "coached" me to get off my butt and go for a better job, or survive a disappointing rejection applying for one.

I am NOT dissing coaching, and I certainly agree with your point that people have mis-appropriated therapy-lite to excuse bad, lazy, self-serving behavior in our culture.

Little Miss Attila and I are pretty tight. She's certainly a blog mentor of mine, as well as my editor sometimes...ANd then there are myriad other female bloggers I look up to and admire...

In my day jobs (ie: not writing or in the ministry) I've had a couple of AWFUL female bosses, and a couple of AWFUL male bosses. From my standpoint, the females were better because they were just bitchy and competitive. One of the males hit on me and harassed me, and I had to keep him at bay without pissing him off (I invented a fictitious Italian boyfriend named Tony from Boston's North End who "is 6'4" and VERY jealous" that did the trick...) My point is, I was able to handle that jerk by thinking quickly, and I would have quit the job (even tho I needed the recommendation to get into grad school) had he been too insistent BUT he really was the worst boss I ever had.

In everyday life, I tend to prefer talking with the men in my department because I find the over-emoting of the women about celebrities and stupid gossip to be tiresome. At least with the men we can whisper about what a jerk the big O is, or laugh over one of their poaching of season hunting trips near a local reservoir.

One of them was fondly reminiscing about pitched battles between seven boys on either side in the woods behind his house (middle school age) with BBguns. No protective gear, it was pre=paint ball. They had a blast. One guy got hit, and had to hide the pellet in his arm from his mom who would have killed him. It popped out in math class the next day...

Retriever said...

Addendum: The female peers I alluded to who had all benefitted from therapy are friends from my youth. I wouldn't presume to speak for my present female friends and fellow bloggers on therapy. But my friends don't view it quite so negatively as you do.

Bear in mind, I have had friends and loved ones who are severely ill and I worked with abused and neglected children professionally, so therapy to me is about helping manage illness and heal from real, not imagined trauma.

David Foster said...

Retriever: "male chivalrous desire to give concrete aid and support to a damsel in distress"

This kind of chivalry is not limited to *damsels* in distress--I have seen very competitive men being extremely helpful to a former rival who was encountering difficulties.

Knock'em down when you have to, but help'em up again, is the spirit of what I'm trying to say here. It is a sporting kind of spirit: we've been on different sides because that's how it happened, but that doesn't mean we have to hate each other. Very different from the attitude that any opponent must be a bitter enemy.

Retriever said...

Good point, David. I was a tomboy in youth, and I often consciously try to be as non-emotional and helpful as the men I work with...For example, one male boss whom I admired was incredibly good at turning around disasters because people told him when there was a problem. He didn't react by having a hissy fit, or blaming, just calmly drew the details out of the person who made the mistake, immediately made them begin to fix the mistake and help solve the problem. I want to be like him when I grow up. :)

David Foster said...

One more thought. While it is no substitute for tangible help, emotional support can indeed be very important to someone facing a crisis. See this post from my Leadership Vignettes series.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I gave some thought to the point that Retriever raises: namely, that women fail to offer help to other women because of female-to-female competitiveness.

And, true enough, the situation changes when women know each other, as I did mention.

The problem I saw with the competitiveness idea is that I can understand if some women are competitive, but I have difficulty understanding that all women are.

The interesting fact about Breslin's experiment was that there was not a single woman among the group who offered any practical advice.

As David says, men do help other men who are down, even when they are competitors. It involves codes of sportsmanship and gentlemanly behavior, not, I would say, empathy or sympathy.

Women seem to sympathize or empathize with the feeling of helplessness that comes after someone has lost a job, but seem to have difficulty offering concrete advice for a woman who is not close to them.

The question about therapy is a larger one. Lately, therapists seem to have come to agree that therapy works best when patient and therapist establish a human connection, when they can relate to each other.

Beyond the fact that such a connection would be prohibited in any treatment that resembled psychoanalysis, I would say that this does not look to me like science or psychology.

And thanks to David for linking to the example of emotional support. It certainly involved one man demonstrating his understanding of a woman executive's insecurity. Though it sounds to me that he offered more of a vote of confidence in her and less a sense that he was feeling her pain.

Thanks all, for a great discussion.