That’s Just How Women (and Men) Are

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the stereotypes that we place on one another, and the implications of those stereotypes, particularly along gendered lines.  (Jerry’s recent post reminds us, however, that issues of race & gender are deeply intertwined).  As the macro-level, I know about the destructive nature of many of dominant stereotypes that exist in our society.  But at a personal level, it is often difficult for me to know how to respond to gendered stereotypes.




In discussing why gender inequality continues to persist amidst social changes, sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway (Framed by Gender, Oxford, 2011) notes that the gendered stereotypes we hold are often resistant to change.  This has important implications.

 What people think “most people” assume about gender… [is what] people use to coordinate their behavior with others on the basis of gender (159).

In other words, stereotypes are often more important in shaping our actions that our beliefs about our “own gendered characteristics.”  In part, this happens because of a pressure to conform to public expectations, or bear negative reactions from others.

]These stereotypes are destructive.  While they hurt both men and women, women face more restrictions and consequences than men from them. Recently, our department hosted a screening of Miss Representation.  This 2011 documentary highlights the ways that negative media representations of women and girls are connected to the low levels of leadership that women have in our society, especially in politics.  Although it’s not addressed in this film, most of us would acknowledge that in the evangelical world, additional pressures exist that can hinder women from leading.

How do we respond?  As a professor at a Christian college, one of my goals is to encourage my students to be open to wherever God would lead them, and to be willing to follow Him in radical ways.  I want to see them use their passions for His Kingdom.  Frederick Buechner writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Wishful Thinking, HarperOne, 1993, 57).  I want my students to discover those places, wherever they may be.

As I suspect is the case with most readers, I daily encounter gendered expectations. I know I am not alone. Our society of course, is not monolithic, and those expectations vary in different contexts (even as some consistency may exist).  Some seem quite innocuous.  Others don’t. They all matter.

As a Christian covered by grace, I want to live a life of extending grace to others.  Sometimes my first thought is to downplay the significance of these stereotypes and expectations.  I don’t want to make a person feel bad by letting them know I don’t fit their assumptions.  Life will just be easier if I go with the flow.  It’s not really that big of a deal if I change my behavior in this setting. I know that I’m more competent than they see me, and I don’t want my pride to get in the way.

Yet reading Ridgeway, I was reminded that this is not about me.  It’s about stereotypes that will hinder (and have hindered) students I hope to encourage, my daughters, my friends, and people I don’t know. They are destructive, and my acquiescence can be part of the problem. One of my hopes this holiday season is that I will take more responsibility in challenging these gendered stereotypes in grace, and encourage others to do so as well.

Sex Work in Vietnam

Much of the material I teach on racial, gender, and class inequalities is US based, but given the increasing relationship between the US and the rest of the world, I’m learning to add more to my repertoire on the push factors that bring new immigrants to the US and the life conditions of the people there. Sometimes documentaries help me figure out the big frameworks for a particular issue, and that helps me to dig my way into the literature on a particular topic. One such documentary I viewed recently is called Half the Sky, based on the book with the same title by journalists (and husband-wife team) Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (the first Asian American Pulitzer Prize winner btw).

In the two part series, Kristof invites noted celebrities who have an interest in meeting the needs of women in the developing world or the Global South. In each of their cases, viewers are exposed to the after effects of female genital mutilation, systemic rape, and child sex trafficking. As Patheos critic Azra noted the documentary suffers from a kind of Western tourism where American celebrities are filmed in conversation with women who have at various times been recipients of truly brutal behavior. It creates this picture that suggests that women in the West are superior since they are embodied by beautiful celebrities who never remark on the inequalities they or other women face in the west. Nonetheless, the documentary illuminated to me some of the ways that women find agency after trauma. Protective spaces and organizations are formed where young girls find new ground in which to recover, and grow through unconditional affection and education.

The sections that focused on Asia intrigued me of course because of my interest in Asian America. And it helped me to engage some new research on the sociology of sex work that’s appearing in some of the best sociology academic journals. One of these is by Dr. Kimberly Kay Hoang, a post-doctoral fellow at Rice University and soon-to-be Assistant Professor at Boston University College.  

Dr. Hoang’s study (which was part of her dissertation and won the American Sociological Association’s best dissertation award for 2012) was an examination of voluntary sex workers in Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam which accounts for 30% of the nation’s GDP. She selected this site because it’s one of those destination cities that casual tourists and business travelers visit with increasing frequency. Vietnam like many developing countries builds its economy from tourism. Less well discussed is that part of that tourism entails sexual tourism via prostitution. As Hoang states there are an estimated 200,000 prostitutes in HCMC alone; this amounts to about 2.7% of the city’s population. This is astounding to me, but I do not know how it compares to other contexts.

Hoang’s thesis states:

“Globalization does not create a single market for poor exploited women who cater to wealthy foreigners; rather I contend that globalization creates diverse markets and new segments that expand already existing inequalities.” (370) “…women’s access to economic, cultural and bodily resources position them in higher and lower paying sectors of sex work with different relations of intimacy.” (370)

In order to support her argument, she frequented bars, cafes, sex workers’ homes, malls, restaurants and the street for seven months to meet with about 54 sex workers and 26 clients. She notes the difficulty in using the most formal method, the one-on-one interview since there is (understandably) a reluctance to divulge much of what they do. Keep in mind sex work is illegal in Vietnam, thus these women describe their work as “girls who accompany customers.”

In Hoang’s study she divides sex work in HCMC into three sectors: low, mid, and high tier. At the low end sector, sex is exchanged for money in a one-time encounter. Sex workers here resemble the ones seen in the Cambodian story in Half the Sky: poor rural and urban women. They work to escape severe poverty but they don’t make enough to get plastic surgery nor do they have the language and cultural capital to gain more expensive clientele. Since their bodies are the instrument of their work, “body capital” becomes important. Those with more resources can augment their bodies in ways that appeal to wealthier clientele. But for the low tier sex workers, they lack these advantages and their clients are usually local somewhat poor, Vietnamese men.

At the mid-tier level the exchange is what Hoang calls “relational.” Women in this class are typically poor and urban similar to the low-end sex workers mentioned earlier. They can obtain plastic surgery and some designer clothing but not of the quality of the high-end workers, and they are fluent enough in English to frequent areas with English-speaking clientele, who are collectively described as “white backpackers,” tourists of American, Australian and European background. These budget travelers seek “authentic” experiences, desiring to meet “real people” as opposed to a sanitized version of HCMC. As such, mid-tier sex workers try to create a sense of authenticity through exchanging intimate details of their lives. The client is then drawn into a relationship as opposed to a simple sex-for-money exchange. The clients are led to believe that they are “saving” good women from poverty by being more involved relationally with the sex worker. The most interesting aspect of the mid-tier sex workers is that that while some of the client-worker relationships are short term, some relationships turn into boyfriend-girlfriend as well as husband-wife pairings. The white backpackers sometimes maintain remittance relationships with sex workers.

At the high end, the exchange is somewhat complex. These encounters with clients happen more than once and the exchange includes sex, but also intimacy (sharing of personal information), gifts and money. Women here are college or vocational-school educated and from wealthy families. Their language ability and knowledge of upper class culture allows them access to high-end hotels and bars where their clients frequent. As such they can afford expensive plastic surgery and clothing which also add to their desirability among high-end clients. These clients are Vietnamese men from overseas (Viet Kieu). The Viet Kieu clients are also particularly interesting in that the women “project to clients an imagined nation: Vietnam as nostalgic ‘home’ for Viet Kieu men” (371). It’s not simply sex, but the illusion of traditional Vietnamese male dominance and traditional Vietnamese female subordination. The relationship between high-end sex worker and Viet Kieu client is very public: these men want to be seen as wealthy, the kind that can afford to lavish their paramour with gifts and money. High end sex workers take great effort to blend in with other women so that these public exchanges cannot be identified as worker-client.

What I learn from this are the ways in which sex work is a means of subsistence, a means of migration, and a means of upward mobility. It’s true that trafficking occurs and with disturbing frequency. But sex work also includes thousands of women who voluntarily participate in sex-for-money exchange. To quickly judge this as exploitation misses the complex realities that women in these conditions face, and the kind of micro-control that they obtain. For the lucky few in the high end they can experience material wealth that cannot be imagined by the low end. For the mid-tier, such sex work might result in migration to a new start. Where their bodies are clearly commodities to their clients, sex workers do what they can to control it as a means to a better life. Ending sex work, as some activists in the West might prefer, will not be necessarily viewed as beneficial from the perspective of some of the women in Hoang’s study, and her cutting edge research helps us understand why.

When is Suffering Transformative? Sullivan’s “Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty”

According to the women Susan Crawford Sullivan interviewed for Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty, what do homelessness, drug addiction, jail time, unplanned pregnancy and domestic abuse all have in common? They are all part of God’s plan to teach poor, young, single mothers that they are sinners in need of repentance. If a narrative of a judgmental God coming down hard on women who suffered due to their lack of personal responsibility strikes you as a problematic narrative, Sullivan and I’m sure most of the readers of this blog would agree with you.

On November 9th, 2012, I convened an author-meets-critics panel at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in which we discussed Susan’s book, which has won two awards from major associations in the sociology of religion, and in my comments, I argued that her book is so important to understand when suffering can be transformative among the poor, a topic I also dealt with in my book, Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora.

I want to congratulate Susan for one of the many accomplishments of her work: she is able to suspend her own judgments—at least temporarily—about what has caused these women’s sufferings to at least give the many poor women in Boston she spoke with a chance to express their own narratives. Don’t worry, if you read the whole book, which I strongly encourage you to do, you will find how Sullivan critiques the cultural narrative of the prosperity Gospel— which says if you do good you will be rich, the converse of which says if you are poor you must be a bad person (sadly, what many Americans think whether they are religious or not). You will also hear her critique the womanist liberation theology that people from oppressed situations are never responsible for what they do; it is the environment, or men, or the church, (but most certainly not the devil), that made them do it.

I want to focus my comments on what is my favorite chapter of the book, Chapter 5, “God has a Plan: Making Meaning.” Chapter 5 is a revised draft of an earlier chapter on narratives of suffering that Sullivan shared with me after we first met. In fact, I first met Susan right after my author meets critics session at the SSSR in 2009 for my book Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora. At that time, Sullivan was struggling to make sense of these very similar narratives she encountered: women told her things like an unwanted pregnancy ended up being a blessing from God; that going to jail for dealing drugs had taught them how to beg for God’s grace and mercy; that being homeless for a short time was a way God taught them to be strong. Many of them blamed themselves for their circumstances; they felt guilt for their own personal failings that brought them to the brink of survival, living in shelters and eating off food stamps and often unable to do what mattered most to them—be good mothers.

Susan Crawford Sullivan

So Susan and I discussed this view of suffering as redemptive, suffering as sent or allowed by God. Was this view good for these women, as they seemed to think, or was it bad for these women as the sociologists inside of us wanted to say? Susan and I exchanged emails and ideas for a few months, and we both read some of Ken Pargament’s excellent work on adult resilience, which talks about the power of suffering to produce the inner transformations these women said they experienced.

I then assigned Susan’s earlier version of this chapter about suffering as redemptive along with sections of Marie Griffith’s ethnography of women submitting to their husbands—even husbands who are not kind to them—and along with Pargament’s work on resilience and suffering. I wanted to see how my students would react to these women’s narratives.

Let’s listen to one such narrative from an exuberant woman, Latoya, who eloquently describes her self-image as a sinner in need of forgiveness and inner transformation. On p. 152, Susan describes how Latoya said:

“I feel that I need God in my life, you know. Maybe by going to church and praying, and praying more to have Section 8 [government-subsidized vouchers for private housing], maybe I’ll get an apartment. Maybe, you know, God will forgive me for my sins. I just got out of jail and all, some things that I did I am not proud of, and I need to go back to church and ask God for forgiveness. I went to jail for selling drugs, and I am not proud of it… I want to get saved, you know, and just ask God for forgiveness. For hurting other people and my kids… I think if I give myself to God, and I turn my life over to God, that things will get better…. Being saved means take away all of your sins, that I would be clean again… I want to turn my life over to God, I want to change my way of life. I want to be a better person. Because I never want to go back to jail. I never want to hurt anybody anymore… Because my soul would be clean, and I know that God would have forgiven me for all my wrongdoings. And I know I would never do no wrong anymore.” (Living Faith, p. 152)

The vast majority of my students rejected the whole notion that suffering is redemptive. Rather, the vast majority of students in  my sociology of religion class vehemently argued that a good God does not punish people with bad things. “She thinks that if she is homeless she can pray for a subsidized apartment and get it? C’mon!” They thought Susan’s interviewees confirmed Marx’s ideas—people turn to religion to alleviate their pain, which then alienates them from the true cause of their problems—the material poverty that made them so vulnerable to begin with. I think many of us struggle to accept these narratives as they are: isn’t there something wrong with women thinking God allows them to suffer because he wants them to be responsible?

But  when my students had this overwhelmingly negative response to the idea of suffering as redemptive, I pleaded for someone in that class to offer an alternative understanding of these women. I was frustrated because not only are these women poor, on welfare, often separated from their children and maybe recently homeless, but now my students are saying they are delusional in their narratives of personal failings for causing their problems and wrong to expect prayer to be effective in solving their problems. Further, my students thought these women should be chided for being so dumb as to believe their own mistakes got them to where they are. They seemed to be shouting, “Will someone please go really save these women from themselves and their religion!”

Then one quiet voice emerged. A bright African-American woman raised her hand and said gently, “Well, maybe these women believe they are responsible for where they are  because if they didn’t believe they were responsible for their problems, how would they have hope that they could take control of their lives and have a better future? I mean, people who are already beaten down in this world don’t just want to go to a church that is going to tell them they are not in control of their lives. They do want someone to tell them that they can have a better life if they do things they can control, and that they can pray to God for help and he will hear them.”

I asked Susan two questions. First, she did an excellent job of providing both a faithful rendition of how these women understand their own lives along with an often poignant critique of the social and structural circumstances that got them there, and she describes both helpful and harmful effects of religious narratives and religious institutions in these women’s lives. So this raises a question: what is our job as sociologists? To critique what we see? Or to represent people’s narratives as they see it? Or both? (She replied that it is both.)

I asked because lately I’ve been reading Andrew Sayer’s book Why Things Matter to People in which he says that the type of work Susan has done is the best of what sociology can do: a) enter in people’s lives, homes, and understand their narratives, even if don’t agree; b) then, using our sociological toolkit, describe the context, circumstances that contributed to these social problems; and c) offer some possible solutions or better ways.  All of these of these things Susan does in Living Faith.

Too often, sociologists want to offer some possible solutions but we hardly stop to think about people’s own narratives; we so easily discard the narratives of people we interview if they don’t match own narratives. This is what Thomas Kuhn called normal science—we are just confirming what we already think. But this is not what Susan has done. These women’s narratives challenged Susan, and she struggled to understand them, and she struggled with how to write about these women while being faithful to their self-understanding and yet also offering alternative religious narratives and structural solutions.

My second question was more personal. I asked Susan, “How did you respond as a person to these narratives?” I asked because when I did interviews for my book Faith Makes Us Live, I had no idea how to respond to the deep trauma people told me about. I remember a beautiful young woman who I call in my book Stephanie telling me about how in Haiti a group of men had broken into her house, took turns raping her, and burned her car—all for refusing to mobilize her community development group to support a particular presidential candidate.

She had has tears running down her cheeks when she told, “But I forgive them for what they did. They know in their heart that what they did to me is  wrong and they have to ask God to forgive them. But the nuns told me not to hold on to my anger; so I left the country because I wasn’t safe, but I forgive them.”  I said nothing—just like in most of my interviews when trauma came up, I was silent, and so terribly conflicted inside about what to do.

Only one time did I response as a fully human being to someone’s narrative of suffering. It was when a vibrant young leader named Karl asked me one day to drive him to college because his car had broken down. I had previously interviewed Karl—he was trained as a lawyer in Haiti and had worked in politics but finally sought exile after being shot during a campaign. He was in his 30s and had to start all over again—his degrees in law and political science from Haiti were in French and held no weight in the US. I had seen Karl energetically organizing political rallies; I had also seen him mobilizing prayer troops to go to the home of seriously ill people and singing to them praying for healing of cancer.

As we drove in the car, Karl looked at me and said with tears in his eyes, “You know, Margarita, I just don’t think I can do this anymore. I’ve had to give up everything, everything, to start my life over in the US and it is just so hard.  I have no job, I have no degree, every day is such a struggle. I feel like I’m never going to make it!” He looked so sad that I had a very emotional and very spontaneous outburst and I yelled at him while pounding the steering wheel, “No Karl! Not you! You cannot give up hope! I see how the youth look up to you. I see how you lead people to fight for better social and political conditions. I see you leading prayer groups. People follow you! God has a plan for your life, he is letting you go through these tough times but God will see you through this. You must have hope! You must promise me you won’t give up!” He thanked me profusely and promised me to keep fighting and leading his community.

Frankly, I was stunned at my own reaction. I had kept quiet in interviews for so long, but after months of interviews and observations, I had internalized this narrative of hope, of suffering as redemptive, and I basically gave Karl a mini-sermon that I had heard over and over again and initially wanted to reject as useless if not harmful. My sermon still expressed the sociologist in me. I had reacted so strongly precisely because I had come to see how this desperately poor and largely traumatized refugee community of Haitians really, really needed leaders like Karl with the good education, the strong faith and the enduring hope and the leadership skills to lead them out of their misery. The passionate human being in me could not let Karl give up.

So I asked Susan: how did you respond to these terribly sad and often disturbing narratives? Do we as sociologists have an obligation to engage with people’s suffering and their narratives that trouble us? If so, how? My quick answer to that is that yes, we do have obligations to enter into the lives of the people we study, even if their narratives and behaviors trouble us, but that does not mean we have to accept or endorse everything about their narratives in our personal interactions or our writing. Susan agreed, saying that when people spoke of trauma, she practiced empathic listening. At the end of interviews, she often offered to pray for people. She is going to donate part of the proceeds of her book to the shelters that help these women.

If you read this book, you will most certainly see that in many ways society and organized religion has failed these women. But you will hear their own heart-wrenching words about their experiences and failures, their hope in the midst of drug addiction, homeless, jail and abuse. You will come to sympathize and at least partially understand why they so long for an inner transformation, a meaningful relationship with God to provide them some guidance, some hope in otherwise dead-end circumstances.

Does Gender Matter in the Classroom?

The New York Times recently reported on a study conducted by researchers at Yale in which they found that when presented with identical resumes of two job candidates–one named John and one named Jennifer–both male and female professors in science and math more favorably evaluated the male candidate over the female candidate. This study indicates that, unfortunately, gender biases still matter in the education, and even more unfortunately, that women under-estimate the skills of other women relative to men.

Linguist Deborah Tannen

What about in the classroom? Do male and female students attribute less authority to female professors than male professors? In my experience, I have found that male students more often directly challenge my authority. In this video interview with Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen on the Colbert report, Tannen explains why women have a harder time earning authority in the public sphere. Unfortunately, she explains, what people expect from leaders (frankness, decisiveness) often differs from what people expect from women (empathy, compromise).

Recently, I discussed male-female differences in the classroom with a group of students at my university, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and many of the things they said echoed themes from Tannen’s book You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation. Although I knew that men speak up in class more than women, I was stuned when one young man told me he is more likely to speak up when he doesn’t know the answer than when he does know the answer. Talking when he is not sure he’s right is a way of showing status, he explained. Women, by contrast, only speak up in class when they are quite sure they are right. As I’ve written in previous post—virtuous behavior lies in the mean of extremes such as these. Speaking up to show you know something you don’t is not helpful to classroom. Not speaking up if you are even slightly unsure leads many bright students not to make valuable contributions. One way I get around these tendencies is to require students to write reading responses prior to coming to class—this practice reduces opportunities for talking-but-not-knowing-the-answer as well as opens up opportunities for quieter students to develop confidence in their arguments.

Discussing male-female differences in the classroom with male students also led me to revise what I wrote earlier on Black, White and Gray—that female students are more relational. I now think that men and women are both relational, but in different ways. One male student told me that he would be much more likely to admit to a female professor than a male professor when he was struggling.

“I don’t want a male authority figure to see my problems, but I’m less worried about telling a woman my failings,” he explained.

His comment immediately reminded me of a student I had who I will call Joe. He was a lively, smart student in my sociology of religion class a few years ago, but suddenly didn’t show up for two weeks, even missing the midterm. When he returned to class and I asked why he had missed so much class, he explained that his brother had been killed by a drunk driver. He looked devastated and depressed and my heart broke for him.

I explained how he could make up the work he had missed for my class and then asked if he had spoken to his other professors. “I don’t know how to tell people what has happened,” he said. “I have never had to ask for an extension on anything. I don’t know what to do.”

“Joe, you must tell your professors what has happened,” I replied. “They will let you make up missed work, but you have to explain yourself.” I then immediately emailed the Dean of Students office, set up a meeting between an academic advisor and Joe so they could help him get back on track.

How could he be afraid to talk about his brother’s death, I wondered? I would have told the whole world what had happened to me. “Oh no,” one male student told me, “I would have done what he did—hide and bury my head. I wouldn’t know how to talk about something like that.”

Although I have long thought that my female students related to me in a special way because I’m female, I only then realized that my male students may also often relate to me differently because I’m female. Moreover, male students may need my help even more because they are less willing to admit their weaknesses and less willing to ask for help even when they need it.

Although I’m acutely aware that talking about male-female differences can lead to gender bias about academic abilities, I nonetheless think dialogue about male-female personality differences is needed so I can be a better professor. Once again, the virtue lies neither in ignoring male-female differences nor in exaggerating them.

Thanks to Deborah Tannen’s books, and thanks to many of my students and colleagues, I have come to know my strengths—and one of my strengths is related to my femininity: it’s easy for people to relate to me, which then means people will trust me and seek my advice. Once I have someone’s trust, then I trust they will see me with authority as well.

In summary, the equal dignity of men and women need not mean uniformity between the sexes. Building on a fundamental equality before the law and in each profession, men and women much each develop their personalities in their unique fashions. Women do have some things in common with other women that they do not share with men, and vice-versa; each individual person further also has his or her own unique characteristics. Learning about male-female differences has made me more aware of my feminine character strengths. I’ve also become more aware of how others perceive me and relate to me.

As one male colleague recently said, “You know, it took me a long to realize we need to do our work as ourselves, not like someone else would. You are very relational, you are a good networker, and it’s good to know that is your strength and build on it.”

We don’t discover our vocations in isolation but through interactions such as those I’ve described here. Although the expression of my femininity may vary across contexts, it is one part of the reality of any situation I find myself in. I’m more fulfilled as a person since I’ve stopped trying to imitate male leaders around me and embraced my feminine character as one of my strengths.