A few years ago, I had the opportunity to present a pretty big, fairly complicated idea to a few people. I was really excited and really passionate about the idea, so I started talking and presenting in full force. As I got to what I really felt was the kicker of the presentation, one of the people in the room started to laugh. It wasn’t a giggle or a guffaw. It was more one of those laughs when you see a little toddler trying to spell words with blocks. I stopped what I was doing and asked what was funny (I guess I was pretty ticked off), and the person said, “No, no, I just think this is great.”
I continued with my presentation, but I wonder to this day if the same presentation, presented by a man, would have garnered the same kind of response. Somehow, I doubt it.
The performing dog syndrome
When I was pursuing my Masters in History, I worked on a thesis that focused on a woman named Phillis Wheatley. She was a slave in Boston just before the American Revolution, but almost from the time she arrived in the colonies, it was discovered that she had an amazing gift for language. She learned English and Latin in months and started writing poetry shortly thereafter. As a woman, not to mention as an African woman, Wheatley became quite the sensation. People would come and watch her write because no one believed that such a “creature” could create poetry in the classical style the way she did (they totally missed the double meaning present in her poems, but that’s a different story). There was never a question about whether her poetry was good or whether it even had a meaning. It was just implausible that she was able to write anything at all.
In modern times, she likely would have been part of a circus act or something similar, as sad as that is to believe.
Have times changed much?
How do you define patronizing?
Often times, when a woman claims that she is being spoken to in a patronizing or condescending manner, the reaction is a roll of the eyes. “Oh, it must be her special time again,” you may hear. However, one also finds that being patronized is something women endure (or at least perceive) quite often. Take, for example, the reaction Joy-Ann Reid had to Mitt Romney handing a poor African American woman a wad of cash while he was on the campaign trail. To her, the act was pure propaganda, and for a man that made a $10,000 bet on stage, handing a poor person a cool fifty-dollar bill seemed more insulting to her than anything good.
It should be noted that the recipient of the $50, however, was entirely thankful. Perhaps patronizing behavior is only in the eye of the beholder.
Patronizing behavior in the business world
It seems like the patronization of women is most often pointed to in the business environment these days. Take, for example, this letter to the editor from June 2011 in which the author notes that a column was patronizing because it indicated there were “too many choices for women to deal with if they wanted to become entrepreneurs.” This article about Sharp Skirts CEO Carla Thompson is also interesting. Thompson apparently has shrugged off a lot of events, Oprah, and Forbes Magazine because whenever she tries to talk business, the subject inevitably turns to fashion or work/life balance or the latest hairstyle. Thompson wonders why women can’t just talk business like the men do. Maybe even with the men. Now wouldn’t that be crazy.
Why does this pattern of behavior exist? Do people think that women prefer to talk about these subjects rather than boring old business? Or is there a darker meaning, like maybe thinking that women just can’t grasp those big words, little acronyms, and complex numbers?
Another question to put out there – how come the strongest group of women in the online world is the “mommy bloggers?” There’s nothing wrong with that, but where are the “women business bloggers?” Where are the “mommy New York Times Best Sellers” authors?
There seems to be a gap there. Is it coincidental or is it comfortable? Is it just okay for women to be super smart about diapers, or can we expand our horizons without getting a chortle or a big condescending smile?
Now it’s your turn
What have been your experiences with this issue? Have you been the recipient of patronizing behavior? Have you been accused of being patronizing when you didn’t think you were even approaching that mode of conversation?
I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/xinex/536918685/ via Creative Commons