Women know that sexual discrimination exists in the work place, but rarely believe it applies to them. The working womans not me attitude is an example of the denial of personal disadvantage phenomenon, according to psychologists at the U-M and Smith College.
Diana I. Cordova of the Institute for Social Research and Faye Crosby and Karen Jaskar of Smith College analyze the prevalence and roots of the not me stance in a chapter of a new book, Group Motivation: Social Psychological Perspectives.
While conducting their research, they heard a classic not me illustration. During World War II, a dozen women attended Smith College and then went on to train as engineers at Harvard Uni-versity. But they ran into a problem. Harvard provided no restrooms for them.
The women, however, never considered that as sexual discriminationnot even when they reminisced about their experiences more than 40 years later.
This small anecdote illustrates not only the existence of sex discrimination over time, but also the extent of self-delusion, the researchers say.
Were the Smith alumnae simply the product of an earlier, less feminist era or was their denial more typical than that? The researchers describe numerous studies conducted over the past 20 yearsincluding studies of Black activists, French Canadians, gay men, and minority M.B.A.sthat suggest that denial of personal disadvantage is widespread.
Two studies led by Crosby in the 1980s show how powerful the pattern of denial is in women. The study included 182 men and 163 women of comparable age, education, training and occupational level. Even though the women earned significantly less on average than their male counterparts, and even though most acknowledged sex discrimination as a serious social problem, only 13 felt that they and all women were shortchanged, and were able to see their work place experiences in relation to women as a whole, the researchers write. The rest felt personally exempt.
Whether women feel they personally are being discriminated against depends on several factors:
This tendency is consistent with social identity theory, the researchers note, which argues that when social characteristics (I am a career woman) become more salient than individual ones (I play tennis), the woman begins to think and act like a member of a groupin this case, a working woman who is concerned about salary.
For instance, in several studies, students were presented with a hypothetical company where sex discrimination was rife across all 10 departments, the researchers say.
One-half of the students received the sex, performance and salary data for the departments in a single large table. The other one-half saw the data one department at a time, in sequence. Those who saw the data in the large table were much more likely to spot sex discrimination.
Clearly the cognitive or information processing component is important, the researchers say.
They add that basic emotional factors also trigger denial: