Just Because a Woman Wrote It Doesn't Mean It Isn't Sexist

My main concern with BusinessWeek's grossly framed, woman-penned article about the psychology of female 'bitchiness' is that it might deter future research on a worthwhile topic.

Nov 30, 2013 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

Earlier this week, BusinessWeek made feminists' heads explode by publishing an article entitled, "Why Are Women So Bitchy to Each Other?" The story focused on a psychological study by a university professor who studies what she calls female “indirect aggression" (which BusinessWeek claims is "usually shorthanded as bitchiness").

In response to the article, Jessica Valenti tweeted: "I'm looking forward to the media frenzy over men being dicks to each other." Other female journos made similar remarks about why competitiveness in women is always seen as negative, whereas in men it's typically described positively. And people couldn't help but notice the fact that the  article's related link was another BusinessWeek story ridiculously titled, "Do Women Want Time Off Work for Their Periods?" Lots of jokes about periods and bitchiness ensued.

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We're soooo bitchy.


Valid, smart responses across the board, but the larger issue, in my mind, is two-fold: First, that a major publication would frame a study on female competitiveness in this way; and second, that because of the framing and the legitimate anger in response to it, other studies on this topic may struggle to find funding. Other psychologists and behavioral scientists may shy away from the topic altogether, concerned at the backlash inherent in studying female behavior of any kind.

First, the media coverage. Holy shit. How the hell does a usually credible publication like BusinessWeek publish something so patently biased? We don't mean to pile on, but did the writer's editor assume she couldn't be sexist because she's a woman? Did an editor even read Claire Suddath's piece before it posted? I can't imagine any editor I know letting lines like these slide:
    •    "Unlike other social habits such as severe celebrity crushes and going to the bathroom in groups women never quite grow out of this one."
    •    "Basically, every member of both genders is a complete jerk."
    •    "Women compete this way for male attention (and vice-versa), but they also compete in situations where they’re actually doing each other harm. Being catty to someone at work isn’t accomplishing anything; it’s just earning you an enemy. One day that enemy might bad-talk you, too."

The headline immediately sets a negative tone for the piece, which is centered, as noted above, on an interesting psychology study. Suddath explains in the story that the author of the study -- Tracy Vaillancourt, a McMaster University psychology professor -- uses the term "bitchy" when describing certain behaviors to her study participants because they typically find the phrase "indirect aggression" difficult to understand. That makes sense. Using the word in the headline of the piece does not ... except if the point is to create controversy and attract clicks, which Suddath did. Within a day, the story was the No.2 most read on the site.

The linked period story (by the same reporter) is even worse. It starts with the news that a Russian minister has proposed legislation that would grant females two days off during their period. Suddath equates women taking such days off with her pocketing extra change if a cashier makes a mistake (which, by the way, is both lame and indicative of someone who's probably never been a cashier). She then sets about interviewing other professional women about whether or not they would take the days off if such legislation was passed in the United States (despite the fact that she also says that would never happen because it's "ridiculous"), resulting in a series of quotes like this one: "I’d actually prefer two days off the week before, when I want to strangle people."

Us ladies need time off to deal with our bitchiness during that time of the month! Am I right, sister-friend? Hey BusinessWeek: Just because a woman wrote it doesn't mean it's not sexist.

What's equally bad, if not worse, is that crap like this makes it next to impossible for studies like Vaillancourt's to happen. Unlike the media, grant-makers and universities tend to shy away from controversial topics, and then there's the issue of researchers just opting out of studying certain female behaviors simply to avoid the potential backlash altogether.

And you know what? Female aggression should absolutely be studied as much as male aggression. We should absolutely know more about what fuels it, how it's exhibited, the pros and cons of it and where it fits into the evolution of the modern woman. The study's findings were fascinating; Vaillancourt reports that women developed the techniques of indirect aggression over time, to fight for everything from men to social status to jobs. Why? Because it's an effective way to fiercely compete without risking bodily injury (at least most of the time).

Her study also found that "indirect aggression is an effective intrasexual competition strategy;" in other words, if you're competing with another lady for a guy, tactics like spreading rumors about her or criticizing her appearance tend to work. In summarizing her findings, Vaillancourt writes that indirect aggression is associated with a "diminished willingness to compete on the part of victims and with greater dating and sexual behavior among those who perpetrate the aggression."

Or as BusinessWeek might put it: Bitches be ballers. That's the thing: The study itself is interesting and worthwhile, I just don't think the magazine did it justice. And if that means we end up without studies of how female competition for jobs differs from male competition, and why, or how, female-on-female judgement affects the expectations society has for women in various roles -- CEO, mother, wife, friend -- then that's a far bigger shame than just some casual link-bait sexism.

What did you think of the story and its implications?