The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present by Seabright Paul

The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present by Seabright Paul

Author:Seabright, Paul [Seabright, Paul]
Language: eng
Format: mobi
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Published: 2012-04-28T16:00:00+00:00

The Signaling Trap

The modern office is an environment in which mutual signaling and maneuvering are as essential to survival as they were on the African woodland savanna where we first evolved. Busy people go to meetings where they waste their own and everyone else's time purely in order to show how busy they are. Important people spend time pressing the flesh just to remind others of their importance, while unimportant people offer their flesh for pressing in the eternal hope of transcending their unimportance. Senior managers arrive early at work and leave late to signal their diligence to others; junior managers arrive early and leave late in the hope of becoming senior managers who will do exactly the same. Their departure is further delayed by socializing with those whose company weighs on them already, because the prospect is less unattractive than that of imagining their colleagues socializing without them. People who spent their college years broadcasting to others about how much they would love to take time off to work among other people's children in the third world do a sharp about-turn once they become corporate employees: they broadcast no less strenuously their utter antipathy to the idea of taking any time off at all, and certainly not for the benefit of their own children.

Successful business organizations prosper by finding ingenious ways to allow their members to escape mutual signaling and maneuvering just long enough to do the productive work that enables the organization to survive and employ them in the first place. If this smacks of undue cynicism, ask yourself how much of your time yesterday was spent doing things that didn't contribute directly to the value of your work but was directed instead at signaling that value to other people. It's not surprising that decisions about how much time to devote to raising children are riven with anxiety about how these decisions will be decoded by others: some people may pay a large penalty for their decisions because, well, it's always been that way. Changes that might benefit everyone may not be within anyone's individual reach.

It seems likely, too, that the kinds of signaling women feel the need to do in the workplace may be more complex than those required of men and therefore more difficult for their colleagues to interpret. In chapter 2 I mention the idea that many minority groups feel under pressure to engage in “covering”—not exactly hiding their identity, but making it inconspicuous so that it no longer looms large on the radar of colleagues and friends who don't share that particular identity. Kenji Yoshino cites the case of Margaret Thatcher, who trained with a voice coach to lower the timbre of her voice.31 Any woman who works in a largely male environment recognizes the challenge of finding a way to project herself as competent and professional while not treating her femininity as a shameful secret. This isn't to say that these pressures are unique to women and ethnic minorities: those middle-aged white males in identical dark suits are toning down something too.


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