Women, Decision-Making, and Experiential Education

August 8, 2015 at 10:45 PM
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Women, Decision-Making, and Experiential Education

Rachel Eager UA’18 and Jim Stellar

It is not deniable. Sexism still exists despite the fact that it is not as blatantly outright as it once was. Women can now have careers, wear what they want and say what they want. However this does not stop the institutionalized oppression that causes them to be paid 77 cents to the dollar a man makes or even less if one is of ethnic background, the sneering looks from the public when a woman is not dressed in a way that is considered “acceptable” for society’s standards, or is acting “crazy” when she is having a bad day. The problem now is the little things that are hidden that make women not quite as equal yet. As mentioned in the blog on Women, Leadership, and Sports, women are socialized differently compared to boys. This is illustrated in the way boys are taught to be competitive and girls are taught to play nicely with little to no aggression. In the blog on Gender Inequity and the role of Experiential Education, the topic is re-explored from the perspective of how Ex Ed college programs could help. What we want to discuss here is more the social neuroscience factors that underlie such issues, for example, microaggression work by Sue, self-handicapping work by Steele, and implicit bias work by Greenwald and Banaji. If you still think this is not a relevant topic, read Half the Sky by Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

I (RE) for one am familiar to the way a woman can be treated on a daily basis due to the stereotypes and socialization that have been placed upon my life. Although I have no brother to whom to truly compare the way I am treated, I have many times conversed with my male friends about the different emphasizes there are on the lives of males and females. It is one of the reasons I decided to become a women’s sexuality and gender studies minor at SUNY UAlbany. Most of the time people are perceived in a way that may have little to no relationship to who they are. Have you ever caught yourself looking at a person thinking he or she would be a certain way and ended up meeting them and finding out they are the exact opposite? I know I have very many times in my life. Thus perception is not necessarily true, when referring to what a person may be like.

There is some neuroscience behind this reasoning. David Eagleman mentions in his book Incognito: Secret Lives of the Brain, that the first thought we have is our unconscious learned response to how we perceive someone from the stereotypes and socialization we have. Our second, correcting thought is our conscious mind kicking in about what we actually do think about the situation. With this response, stereotypes issue a huge problem about how we have been taught and our brain’s response to this unconsciously accumulated life experience. As this blog often discusses, we follow the idea laid out by Paul McLean that the brain can be divided at least into a primate brain, which thinks rationally and of which we are conscious, and a lower mammalian brain which operates more automatically is outside consciousness, and Eagleman suggests communicates with the mammalian brain through emotions (e.g. that major feels right, that women seems competent). Like what we are learning in the field of neuro-economics or in the behavioral version of that field called behavioral economics, these implicit judgments very often underlie our decisions.

With this as background, we want to discuss two studies that look specifically at the stereotypes throughout society that have formed between men and women, formed a hypothesis about the possibility of brain performance between genders. The first is Sex Differences in the Neural Correlates of Affective Experience. It focuses on women being emotionally intense compared to males who are considered to be more rational thinkers. Men also are considered to be more visual beings compared to women. Thus a hypothesis formed out of these two assumptions. The study then used 132 pictures that were marked negative, positive, or neutral. When shown a picture, an individual’s brain activity was measured and the people were personally asked to measure their excitement on a scale of 1-3 (3 being the most stimulated). It was found that men and woman did not actually differ in the excitement created by the pictures and women’s strength of the response did not differ per moment as expected by the stereotype. Where the men and women did differ was in the precise pattern of brain activation including in a key brain area for linking internal signals with cognitive function, the anterior insula cortex, leaving the authors to conclude that “women are relatively more focused on internal sensations from the body during the subjective experience of arousal when compared with men.”  Thus while interesting differences did exist, the prospects of women being irrational, emotional thinkers is not supported.

The second study we want to discuss is Variations in Decision-making by age and gender: A cluster-analytic approach. The study tested the hypothesis that women would be more “interpersonally-oriented” in their thinking compared to men and make decisions based on others,much more irrationally, and more intuitively than men; who are by contrast the more rational decision makers.  In this study, 1,075 people were asked to complete a survey and evaluate how they made the decision. Despite what the above hypothesis predicted, women were actually more rational decision makers than previously thought, although they still showed more dependency on other people when making decisions. On the other hand, males showed a tendency towards impulsiveness when making decisions. Much of this result shows the power of societal influence when it comes to gendered decisions, but that is another topic.

Thus it seems clear from these studies that the old stereotype of an irrational female decision-maker is just wrong.  But even this conclusion may be oversimplified.  The best thinking may be to develop an effective balance of both rational decision-making and emotional or intuitive decision-making processes.  The anterior insular cortex results sited above suggest that women may do this differently than men and thus may be poised to make a unique contribution to professional society. If higher education, and especially experiential education can help to develop this rational/intuitive balance than it can have the the hoped for role in encouraging women to go into more analytical work like science and engineering and not only help to remove stereotypes and barriers that have originally caused women problems, but help to advance our general societal problem-solving capacity in a complex world. We hope to write further in the future about these issues.

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