5 min read
The first woman was also the first “nasty woman”. (I refer to the misogynist insult – invoked by Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton in the October 2016 debate – now co-opted as an empowering feminist battle cry.) Like women still experience today, the mythical first female human was punished for the sin of having ambition.
Nearly 3000 years ago, a Jerusalem priest wrote down an old etiological myth: Chava (a pun on the Hebrew word for “life”, Anglicized as Eve) ate from the figurative Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Her nameless male companion also partook. God perceived this as an attempt by humans to become wise like him.
But it is Eve who incurs horrific retributive intergenerational punishment for women: increased pain in childbirth and permanent loss of gender equality. For his equally ambitious act, the as-yet-unnamed man incurs the punishment of farming difficulties. In subsequent Hebrew scriptures as well as post-Biblical Jewish, Christian, and Islamic tradition, Eve’s relative culpability was further exaggerated. Many ancient cultures developed myths warning against human ambition; the henotheistic Yahweh worshippers of Iron Age Judah gave us one that is uniquely gendered, and which proved uniquely enduring.
Laws are symptomatic of…the need for laws. A given society’s rules tell us what is common behavior in that society, in that a rule was deemed necessary to curb or prevent that behavior. This solipsism yields important realizations about Biblical times, such as:
- Homosexuality was common (as it has been in most cultures in most historical periods). We know this because Hebrew scriptures felt the need to proscribe homosexuality (though unevenly so, and not as brutally as right-wing apologists’ cherry-picked text quotations suggest, by the way…).
- Men knew women have high sex drives (as most cultures through most historical periods have known, with the notable exception of present-day America – in fact, evolutionary biologists posit that pro-sex female physiology reflects the social incentive of primitive women for multiple sex partners in order to achieve partible paternity to ensure offspring survival under resource scarcity). We know that men knew this, because they felt the need to create myriad rules to control women sexually – keeping us covered up, out of sight, and generally separate from what could tempt our wanton sexual appetites. Hebrew scripture says women are to be more severely punished for adultery than are men….because, by implication, women are believed to be proactive in seeking those adulterous encounters. (Today, men accuse women of wanting sex in the form of rape because…men believe women really want sex that much. And, yet, men simultaneously whine that women don’t really want sex very much. That self-serving, contradictory logic deserves its own essay…)
Similarly, we see that, since ancient times, women have been blamed as overly-ambitious for doing the exact same thing as a man does. Men have long felt the need to punish women for being ambitious because… women are in fact ambitious, just like men are. According to the foundational text of Western culture, the reason God punished women is that Eve showed ambition…and that ambition was more threatening coming from her than coming from her male companion.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Hebrew Bible-believing theist, an adherent to a different religious tradition, an atheist, or a post-theistic spiritualist. Growing up and living in “Judeo-Christian” America colors your perspective of the world…including your perspective of women. The controlling paradigm is inescapable except through conscious reflection and deliberate, offsetting efforts by those governed by it. Bias is largely invisible to those who wield it. This is common knowledge among educated people. But, abstract learnings from the cognitive science and behavioral economics revolution aren’t consistently applied to people’s own concrete beliefs and actions.
I was recently up for a job to be the first woman in a mid-level (or, for that matter, higher level) position at a Philadelphia-based consulting firm. After 4 months of interviews, discussions, and the beginnings of a salary negotiation, they ghosted me. One employee informed me that the reason was that I “seem too ambitious and enthusiastic”. [Update: Seven months after this writing, I learn that he has been propagating this strange assessment through my city’s business community: A networking acquaintance recently heard that the firm determined that I was “too eager” to hire.]
Ironically, I had meanwhile actually been pondering how to convey more enthusiasm to the prospective employer, lest my gentle feminine aura be misinterpreted (as is so often the case in the corporate world) as lack of adequate ambition. After all, this prospective employer had flown me halfway across the country for a day of second-round interviews — only to schedule just two and half hours of talks and then recommend that I enjoy the rest of the day “shopping”. (Ambitiously and enthusiastically, I opted to entertain myself by milling around an industry conference instead.)
Such unfair, gendered (i.e., illegal – though difficult to litigate) adverse selection criteria are commonplace. And, at this point, the ubiquity of gender bias (of both the subconscious or subtle “benevolent” kind — and the unapologetically blatant harassment kind) should be common knowledge. Scandal after scandal unfolds in the putatively progressive business world of Silicon Valley, prompting sighs of validation and eye-rolls of exasperation among affected women to whom it’s very old news. What other late-to-the-party news headlines await, upon the eventual outing of pervasive sexism in the conservative business cultures beyond California?
This instance of failure-to-hire is particularly absurd. Why? Because consulting businesses depend on employees being forthright and at times contrarian to powerful clients, as well as ambitious and tenacious in the never-ending task of prying open reluctant corporate wallets to secure new 6- and 7-figure projects to fill the pipeline. Consultants without copious amounts of ambition and enthusiasm don’t last very long.
However, the male cabal that installs and assiduously maintains glass ceilings usually perceives:
(a) the emotional price of de-biasing themselves towards women
is greater than
(b) the financial cost of missed business opportunity.
In other words, they irrationally prefer to reach twice as deep down into a pool of male candidates, rather than put in effort to ensure hiring the top people from a combined, gender-agnostic candidate pool. And, by conveniently ignoring their false negative rate of rejecting competent women, they convince themselves that their scraping-the-bottom-of-the-male-barrel hiring system “works perfectly well”.
Women are forced to put far more effort (and “enthusiasm”) than men into conveying our competence, intensity, and motivation. We have to combat the pervasive a priori bias among (still mostly-male) corporate gatekeepers that women are less inherently competent, less hard-working (because surely I have children and am their primary caretaker, or will clock out early to pursue my true passions of scrapbooking and knitting, or will slack off when I’m “bleeding out of my whatever”), and less in need of a job (because surely I am just some man’s secondary income, or it’s simply audacious for me to aim to thrive and I should suffice with mere passive survival). However, once we “lean in” to demonstrate those desirable qualities, we are often punished with accusations of being arrogant (it’s unseemly for women to tout accomplishments, or to ask for a market-level salary at parity with male peers), too emotive, too enthusiastic, too eager… and too ambitious.
This consulting firm’s startling and unprompted first question to me was: whether a VP at one of their client companies had hit on me when I worked there. The questioner counseled me that I — the unwilling and studiously passive target of a married man’s emotional lability 1.5 years prior — “should be prepared to explain what happened”. Volunteering such an irrelevant and dated anecdote has no place in a business interview (…or is that my “over-eager” personality talking? But, wait, my discretion is the opposite of over-eagerness…) Gender bias is so normal that gatekeepers communicate it plainly, with apparent impunity.
The enduring reality is that if that the owners of that consulting firm don’t want a woman in their inner circle or upper ranks, they will continue to get away with it. They can safely look down on me through their impenetrable glass floor, celebrating male mediocrity, and smugly congratulating themselves for honoring our culture’s 3000-year-old paradigm of prejudice against women’s ambition.