Why 'Come Hither' Looks Lower Women's Math Scores
David Berreby is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." He has written about human behavior and other science topics for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Nature, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them." David can be found on Twitter at @davidberreby and reached by email at david [at] davidberreby [dot] com.
Spring has sprung in here in New York City, stripping off our layers of winter clothes. The eye falls with pleasure on a pair of pretty feminine legs in a minidress here, or the tan thick-muscled joint where masculine torso meets thigh. At least, it did, until it remembered reading in this experiment (pdf) that "the objectifying gaze" had a small but measurable bad effect on women's performance on a math test (men's performance took no such hit from getting the once-over). Seems an apt moment for a seasonal post: This is the time of year, when we come out of their winter cocoons into the warmth, to consider the psychological and ethical ramifications of checking each other out.
Let's confine the discussion to straight men looking at women, the paper's subject, because it's ubiquitous. Most men I discussed the subject with seem to have a personal code for this appraising gaze: A working definition of what kind of checking-out is meet and acceptable for a civilized man and what is beyond the pale. This code generally gets treated as a matter of personal taste, bound up with culture, religion and—especially—social class. And much as people care about matters of taste, choices in that realm don't have the same bite as ethical considerations, where one choice can be, and often is, obligatory. Your taste in socks doesn't concern me, but your ethical take on murder does.
So I see this new study, published last month in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, as an argument, based on experiment, for moving the gaze question from the realm of taste to the realm of ethics. And if it's right in its claims, then the argument is hard to dispute. It argues that any overt "checking out" has a bad effect on women's ability to thrive.
In the study, Sarah J. Gervais of the University of Nebraska Lincoln and her colleagues trained two women and two men to give a stranger a very hard-to-miss "objectifying gaze": when they met a new person, they looked "from head to waist and from waist to head in one sweeping motion." These people then went undercover, playing the role of just one more assigned participant in a psych experiment. In that experiment, 67 women and 83 men were told they'd be working in two-person units in a study of teamwork. One person would be the "leader" and the other would be the "worker." The leader would ask some questions of the worker, both would answer some questionnaires, and then the "worker" would work on math problems selected by the "leader."
In reality, the "leader" was always one of the four confederates, and for 33 of the women and 46 of the men, the leader did that "I-am-checking-you-out" routine: Not just the sweeping gaze on first meeting, but then three pauses during the question-and-answer session to glance at the other person's chest. And, in case anyone missed those subtle signs, in an instant-feedback written evaluation of the "worker," they would write that their partner "was looking good." The other participants got eye contact instead of ogling, and the written feedback said they were doing good.
Women who received the objectifying treatment scored lower on average on the math test than did women who didn't. Men, on the other hand, didn't show this effect. Both checked-out and non-checked-out males scored in the same range. Gervais et al. were looking for other bad effects of the gaze, and, interestingly, did not find them: Women who had been through the checking-you-out routine didn't score differently on measures of shame or dissatisfaction with their bodies, nor did they have greater anxiety about their appearance. There was one other effect, though: When asked to rate how much they'd like to hang out or work with the leader, women who had been put through the objectifying routine were more positive about spending time with the partner than were women who hadn't been objectified.
As the authors point out, their experiment is unusual in the field because it claims a concrete cause-and-effect (objectifying gaze leads to lower score) , rather than just a correlation (men's presence in a math class is associated with lower scores compared with an all-female setting).
Still, I'm not sure I buy the paper's premise that the experimental condition is generalizable as a model of society. Not all of life, after all, is a math test.
Yet Gervais et al strongly suggest that the objectifying gaze can never be pleasant, or wanted, or appropriate to the situation. "The findings from our experiment reveal that the objectifying gaze is particularly problematic for women," they write, without qualification. But who has not, at some point, sought out the objectifying gaze? Can't we admit that for women and men, there are moments when one presents one's self as a sexual parcel? And that this isn't a social construct of late capitalism but an aspect of the human personality? "For I must tell you friendly in your ear," Shakespeare has one woman say to another in As You Like It, "sell when you can: you are not for all markets." (Yes, Shakespeare's stage women weren't real (in fact, they were boys) but my point is that his audience didn't scratch their heads about the objectification.)
There are occasions when the objectifying gaze is wanted and expected. For example, the moments described in this interview, where Inès de la Fressange said one good thing about being pregnant is that "you have beautiful tits." To which she later added: "I remember at dinner I was tan with my huge tits and I felt so great. I had the feeling I didn’t need to do conversation."
De la Fressange's enjoyment of the "objectifying gaze" depended, I think, on her ability to control where and how it fell upon her. When men rob women of that control over their self-presentation—when male looks turn a math test or a parking ticket or a meeting into a sexual market—it's not the look itself that's to blame. It's men's insistence on abusing women's autonomy. It's as if society had a problem with men running about threatening women with bats: The answer is the curtail the threats, not ban the bats.
Gervais, S., Vescio, T., & Allen, J. (2011). When What You See Is What You Get: The Consequences of the Objectifying Gaze for Women and Men Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35 (1), 5-17 DOI: 10.1177/0361684310386121
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
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