The tyranny of kind and nice

A very disturbing theme emerged in the Mar. 9 Women’s Week lecture called “Is There a Female Leadership Crisis”: Professional and political women fail because they’re too nice.

IR majors take note: According to State Senator Pat Jehlen and Gore/Lieberman 2000 National Finance Director Eileen Kotecki, women are failing in politics because they’re too polite, too passive and too unimposing.

This is, of course, emblematic of a huge social issue, but its implications in politics are especially frightening and pertinent to Tufts. This year Women’s Week is shining some light on the problem with events like the leadership lecture and the upcoming Women and Negotiation Seminar.

In my high school, they had sociologists come talk to us about “the tyranny of kind and nice,” a term created by psychologists Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel to explain why teenage girls vent their aggression in passive, backstabbing ways, and why girls are in general unable to be as assertive as boys.

It was shocking to me to hear the speakers last Thursday discussing how this same gender gap demonstrates itself in politics. Do senators and middle schoolers really have that much in common?

Significant studies have found that teenage girls and boys have equal aggressive and competitive drives. But why do boys hit each other, and girls gossip? The tyranny of kind and nice. Basically, girls are socialized to be pleasant, polite, sweet and certainly non-threatening. The mistaken cultural assumption that boys are simply more aggressive than girls leads parents and teachers to discourage girls from asserting themselves. Boys will be boys, while girls are sugar and spice and everything nice.

But sociologist Rosalind Wiseman and psychologist Nicki Crick, among others, say that with a huge amount of aggression building up behind that smile, girls can’t just be passive. So they become passive-aggressive, which leads to immense insecurities about their abilities to face problems head-on.

We must take this outside of the realm of high school drama and consider the possibility that this is a very serious problem for Tufts students and graduates. Both speakers at Thursday’s event said that the major reason more women do not succeed in politics is their lack of self confidence. When asked about politics, women tend to say, “Oh, that looks so hard. I don’t think I know enough about that.” But men just do it. Kotecki emphasized that women politicians don’t like to ask for money because it seems pushy and impolite. She has fundraised for every elected Democratic senator in Washington since the 1990s, and has come across problems with aggression and assertiveness across the board when it comes to financing female candidates.

She even had a Kennedy say that she couldn’t possibly ask for money from her family to run her campaign; it wouldn’t be polite. Clearly, in a business where money is the highest God, a discomfort with going out to get some is a huge setback.

Jehlen said that a lack of self-confidence has also prevented women from influencing politics. Women barely even vote, especially young single women. And after years spent doing door-to-door campaigns and talking to her constituents, Jehlen believes this phenomenon stems from a sensation among women that they don’t know enough about the issues to vote well, or couldn’t possibly actually make a difference in politics just by themselves. So they don’t bother to vote at all.

You don’t have to care about the wage gap or the glass ceiling or any of those feminist concerns that are so un-sexy to talk about to realize that this is a problem for us as Tufts students. According to Jehlen and Kotecki, women are failing to reach powerful positions in politics because they don’t network aggressively, they don’t fundraise aggressively, and they don’t negotiate aggressively.

Last time I checked, approximately every undergrad at Tufts is majoring in either political science or IR. And over half of Tufts students are female. All those female IR majors are going to have a tough time in their chosen fields if they don’t become more aware of “feminine” biases and behaviors.

Yes, this means women like you: It is easy to think that this isn’t our kind of problem, since we’re well-educated women who have been given equal chances with men throughout our University careers. Clearly, this is not enough. The tyranny of kind and nice is alive and well among the best-educated women in our country, who work in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, in the Office of the President, in the State Department, in the Department of Defense, in the UN and the WTO and in the private sector.

They are still not getting promoted or elected because they don’t push hard enough. “We’ve still got to be 10 times better than our male counterparts to succeed,” Kotecki said. But even being the best and the brightest isn’t good enough if no one notices you’re in the room.

This year, Women’s Week focuses on professional women, and on Tuesday the 14th, there will be a panel and reception on women and negotiation. How much do you want to bet that the engineer, the lawyer, the doctor and the activist who are on that panel will have very similar things to say about passivity in women from their various fields?

College women have got to learn how to negotiate. We’ve got to learn how to push and push and not give up until we get what we want, and we’ve got to stop worrying about how we look as we’re doing it.

Thursday’s lecture demonstrated the severe consequences of this cultural attitude problem towards women. Crawling out from under the tyranny of kind and nice probably isn’t going to be easy; just consider how hard Virginia Woolf found it to kill the Angel in the House. But the first step is for Tufts students to put themselves out there and take advantage of programming like the women and negotiation seminar – if they’re serious about succeeding in politics.


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