The Jennifer Lawrence Effect

Jennifer Lawrence recently wrote about her experience after learning that her male costars were paid much higher salaries than she was paid in recent films after the Sony hacking episode a while back. She described being angry at herself for feeling it was more important at the time to be likeable than to have equitable, appropriate payment for her incredible work. I know what she means.

As an academician, I have spent my life struggling with this kind of reverse fraud. I call it a reverse fraud because there is active deception, but the deception is not to make people think you are better than you are. The deception is designed to make people think you are less than you are so that they feel more at ease in your presence, less threatened, more likeable. I argue, and really this should be obvious to anyone, but when people are asked to squeeze themselves down into a facade for the personal comfort of others, we all lose terribly as a society. This should be obvious, but perhaps it isn’t.

Training to be a scientist requires that you learn how to critically read scientific literature – the works of those who have gone before you – and formulate your own thoughts about their validity. Then you test the ideas you have generated from studying what has gone before. I have worked with scientists who understand this, and when I share my thoughts about a scientific or medical subject, they enjoy discussing the possibilities, leading to new ideas and discoveries. This is how academia should be.

In my training, mostly male physicians didn’t take well to my expressing my thoughts and opinions. Had I been another male, I am certain I would not have been perceived with any threat. I believe my thoughts and ideas would, at the very least, be entertained, heard. I am not so naive to think that there aren’t men out there threatened by other men, but when you look at academics as a whole, even this is accepted. If men find other scientists’ opinions or thoughts threatening, it generates discussion, sometimes loudly.

An entire book was written about one such encounter among male philosophers, called “Wittgenstein’s Poker”. According to the book, a discussion was taking place between prominent philosophers at the Cambridge University Moral Sciences Club in 1946. Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was chairing the meeting, passionately explained his arguments to the paper that was being presented, highlighting his points using a fireplace poker. Various different viewpoints were taken by those in the room or others who heard the story later, but rather than being silenced and told he cannot accept criticism, the actions of Wittgenstein were ultimately seen as passionate discourse. He wasn’t ignored or silenced because of his passion, even though others may have disagreed with him vehemently.

Men who agree find like minded men who agree with them, or some male scientists are alone in their opinions. Sometimes they are right, sometimes they aren’t. But they can speak their mind without the added fear of being alientated just for having thoughts and opinions.

When I have had the audacity to describe data and explain my interpretation of the facts as presented, I have been told that the results are simply artifact. I have been maligned personally. When I explain that other scientists have seen the same thing, rather than consider that my data is a real effect, or perhaps explaining why they think it is artifact, I have been told that I cannot accept criticism. When I spoke up to defend myself, I was told I was difficult. No one would support me openly, for to do so would have tainted them, as well. I received silent support which helped, but did not heal.

When the statement “she cannot accept criticism” appears on your reviews, how do you think this impacts ones career? Imagine how it would feel to stand up for your ideas based on data that is collected, clear as day, only to be shut down and ignored. One has to make a decision at that point: stand up for what you believe and be seen as ugly and unlikeable, or falsify what you are to make everyone around you happier. I think even the Buddha would have been in a quandry over this. To be myself meant to make those around me suffer.

This is only one of many similar stories in my own life, and I am sure there are many such stories from women across the globe.

Is there a way out of this? Very often the way out of suffering is through it. We have to be who we are. We have opinions, thoughts, feelings – some are likeable and some are not. If we all refused to be less than what we are and support each other through the process, and stand by each other, progress could take form. Perhaps other men who see the threat and fear in their colleagues could speak to the men who feel threatened and show how our opinions could be important. Or, perhaps I was wrong and my data was artifact. It would have been better to redirect me with kindness than to publicly shame me. This would have been a better use of everyone’s resources.

Science is about getting closer to the truth. This process only deepens and improves when the thoughts and opinions of all are considered. History is littered with stories of how both men and women have not been believed. But women are most often not only disbelieved, but often personally maligned, put down by being told they “cannot accept criticism”, or worse. Rather than quiet Wittgenstein, when he wasn’t being heard and threw down the poker he used to emphasize his points, he was heard all the more. If anyone said “he cannot accept criticism”, it was drowned out by those who were drawn to his points by his passion. He clearly didn’t care about being liked.

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