Earlier today, I wrote about two studies with aggravating conclusions: One explained how women can learn to cope with sexual harassment better, and the other showed how young girls dumb themselves down in order not to subvert the masculinity of their male counterparts. A third study, released Thursday in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, should be added to this casual list of Highly Annoying Scientific Findings; in it, the authors suggest that women would do well to “man up” in interviews for jobs in male-dominated fields, because it could help them avoid prevalent, sexist discrimination.
In each of the studies, the researchers recognize that the clear sexism in play is a flawed, institutionalized social construction, not an example of “the way things are” naturally. But each of the studies also presents some sort of distressing response to sexism, whether it’s endorsed by the authors or not. In the first case, the researchers suggest that less resilient women can be taught skills to avoid internalizing the negativity of rape culture and sexual harassment. In the second, girls conform to boys’ expectations that they be less intelligent and not do anything that might be perceived as masculine. And in the third, the authors advocate for women promoting themselves as “assertive,” “independent” and “achievement oriented” in interviews, because being “warm,” “supportive” and “nurturing” might be used against them.
Um, no. As I wrote before, creating ways for women to overcome sexist social trappings isn’t necessarily a bad thing — but when it’s left at that, without addressing how to get rid of those sexist social trappings so women don’t have to learn to adjust to them, there’s an issue. Sure, scientific reporting relies on facts and figures and hard research; it’s not exactly protocol to make recommendations outside those the data imply. But when it comes to sociological research, monoliths like sexism and normative gender expectations matter. The data might seem to suggest that women should “man up” for interviews, for instance — but what the data really suggest is that women are, in fact, being discriminated against in interviews, and that maybe those in positions of power should stop relying on problematic conceptions of masculinity and femininity when they’re hiring people. Those things are made up. They shouldn’t matter. Nobody should “man up” for anyone!
Of course, it’s not that simple, and that’s exactly why sociological insights like these — even when they’re annoying — are important. We do need to know that women blame themselves for sexual harassment, so that we can figure out how to eliminate rape culture; that girls feel the need to “play dumb,” so that we can give them a better chance at equality; or that women who seem “too feminine” don’t get jobs, so that we can call out those who keep sexism a daily horror. But when findings conclude that women somehow need to adjust themselves to a culture that continually keeps them on unequal footing with men, there’s always more to be considered. This research has a shared and crucial corollary, and annoying as it is it cannot be overstated: Sexism is real, and it’s the thing that needs to be changed.