A Little-Noticed Male/Female Difference: Pressure to Conform

In Americanah, Chimamanda Adichie’s new novel, she writes (p. 240):

Ojiugo wore orange lipstick and ripped jeans, spoke bluntly, and smoked in public, provoking vicious gossip and dislike from other girls, not because she did those things but because she dared to without having lived abroad, or having a foreign parent, those qualities that would have made them forgive her lack of conformity.

Here is another example, from a profile of Claire Danes:

She changed schools twice, “fleeing one mean girl only to find another incarnation of that same girl in the next school.” She was targeted for her looks, her nerdy curiosity, her refusal to conform.

My impression is that these examples illustrate a large male/female difference: Women will commonly criticize another woman for lack of conformity (unless somehow “earned”); men are much less likely to criticize another man this way. When women do it, it is called being catty. There is no equivalent term when men do it — presumably because no one invents a term for something that doesn’t happen.

I have never seen this mentioned in the literature on male/female differences (nor in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In). It isn’t easy to explain. Could it be learned? Well, in my experience girls are under more pressure to “act a certain way” than boys (Japan is an example), but I can’t explain that, either, nor can I see why that would translate to women putting pressure on other women to conform.

One reason this tendency is hard to explain is its effect on leadership. Putting pressure on other women to conform makes it harder for women to become leaders — leadership is the opposite of conformity. Making it harder for women to be leaders makes it easier for men to be leaders. It is hard to see how this particular effect (there are many others) benefits women.

24 Replies to “A Little-Noticed Male/Female Difference: Pressure to Conform”

  1. “I have never seen this mentioned in the literature”

    As I recall, something like this is mentioned in John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. I don’t know if Gray ever uses the term “conformity”, but he does talk about women needing approval and validation, while we men frankly don’t give a damn.

    By the way, I never bought into Gray’s premise. To me it’s an insulting stereotype to assume that when a women talks about a problem, she needs a hug, not a solution. Of course, that may explain why I’m still single…

    Seth: I haven’t read Gray’s book. However, needing approval is quite different than disliking non-conformity of other women. The two things — needing approval and disliking non-conformity of other women — do both act in the same direction, to increase conformity.

  2. Is it an aspect of the fact – if fact it be – that women are less differentiated than men? I know that the standard deviation of IQ among women is smaller than among men. Are there any other quantitative psychological or physiological traits that show that pattern?

  3. dearieme I was reminded of exactly the same thing.

    Seth, I love the way you pick out new/under-represented ideas and share them. Thanks so much for the time you invest in this blog.

  4. Perhaps it’s more a difference between males and females in how non-conformity is punished and what sort of things are punished. As an example, any queer person will tell you there is pressure to conform from both males and females, but you get threats of violence, actual violence, “corrective rape”, and sometimes even murder, from men. The comedian Louis CK has a joke about this difference of physical vs emotional violence between men and women; ‘a man will cut off your arm, but a woman will s*** in your heart’.
    Of course, you also have “gas lighting” (using lies to make a woman doubt her memory,/perception/sanity), but that’s not male on male abuse. I think there is more pressure on women to conform from both men and women.

    Seth: “More pressure on women to conform from both men and women”. That would be a good study. For example, if someone wears an unusual colored shirt, is there a difference in response depending on whether the wearer is male or female?

  5. Here’s a relevant study… http://blogs.wsj.com/atwork/2013/02/22/conflict-at-the-office-women-and-the-catty-trap/

    “The subjects, both male and female, consistently viewed the conflict between the two women in the most negative light.”

    If men are being critical, then they are blunt and honest, if women are critical, then they are catty or b*tchy.

    Seth: Well, yes, since there is no male equivalent of “catty” when men criticize other men it follows that different words would be used to describe that criticism. I don’t see how that sheds light on whether there is a male/female difference here.

  6. I think you are missing something here.

    The people expecting women to comply and exerting that pressure are other women too, in other-words this can be seen as BOTH female oppression AND female leadership.

  7. I do think that there is some gender bias in the assumption that men don’t do this. I am a psychologist and have treated way too many men who were bullied as adolescents because they didn’t conform. They were dumped in trashcans, locked in lockers, and beaten up. Gay men are often beaten to death for their differences.

    That being said, I do wonder with females if there is some evolutionary pressure to conform so as not to attract attention to the female group in general. Someone who stands out as a female may attract dangerous attention to the female “tribe.” There may be other competition pressures as well (the female who stands out may attract the alpha ape. Anyhoo, it is all theorizing, but the idea that only females do this too each other is plain wrong.

    Seth: The idea is that females do it more.

  8. Generally, gender researchers in recent decades find that girls and women display more relational violence — malicious gossip, hurtful insults, etc.; while boys and men are more physically violent. “Pressure to conform” probably is tied to this…

  9. Could this be a legacy of polygyny type relationships where many women had to share one man? Then they all had to be cooperative (i.e. on the same page) to enhance reproductive fitness?

  10. “but the idea that only females do this too each other is plain wrong.

    Seth: The idea is that females do it more.”

    Why do some people find it so hard to grasp any argument about averages? It’s as if you said that men are on average taller than women and some chump said ‘but my mum’s taller than my dad”.

  11. “Why do some people find it so hard to grasp any argument about averages?”

    Understanding averages when talking about people leads to crimethink.

    People are just being responsible and engaging in crimestop.

  12. A long, long time ago… a woman who was 8 or 9 months pregnant would have had a difficult time surviving on her own. Not impossible but more difficult. A 9 month pregnant female can’t run as fast, climb as fast, jump as high and so on. Chances for survival are enhanced if she is in a community of non-pregnant females and perhaps a few males hanging around because of the sexual availability of the non-pregnant females. If that is the case, then conforming is the most rational strategy – being non-conforming risks ouster. Being non-conforming is an implicit, and sometimes explicit, judgement against the group

  13. There is a theory that women evolved gossip (and cattiness) as a way to connect with each other during those long days at home while the men were out hunting.

    As a man, it’s easy to interpret gossipping and cattiness as pressure from other women to conform. That’s a male-brain interpretation and assumption which may not be true. Perhaps women understand that this cattiness is just cultural, just a way to connect, and do not hear the words (from other women) as literal pressure to conform. I.e. they roll with the verbal punches – they don’t take this kind of criticism (from other women) as seriously as a man would.

    I am neither a woman nor an evolutionary scholar, but I’ve heard a similar explanations from multiple sources.

  14. To me it’s an insulting stereotype to assume that when a women talks about a problem, she needs a hug, not a solution.

    My personal experience tells me you are wrong: very, very wrong. Instinctually, I agree with you, but I am wrong too.

  15. “dearieme, women are physiologically MORE differentiated than men–we don’t pee through the opening we use for sex.” We weren’t discussing the plumbing.

  16. I’d imagine that it has something to do with sex and mating. The two examples both show women knocking back a rival’s reproductive advantages- one for good looks and the other for extra ornamentation. It’s pretty obvious that women’s looks play a far larger role in finding a mate than mens’. So it makes sense that women would look to hamstring women who have a leg up in that game. It’s the same with women who sleep around, they’re ‘cheating’ and the women will be more viscous than the men policing it.

    Men don’t have a great deal of trouble falling in line behind and supporting somebody they genuinely respect- the captain of the football team type doesn’t have a lot of guys gossiping about how he shouldn’t show off his bench press. It’s a cliche but it’s true that the people who ‘hate the football team’ are the ones dressed in black and smoking behind the library. The other socially dominate types are mostly happy to be along for the ride with their leader. There are occasional power struggles, but when they’re over most men are happy to fall into line behind the winner without taking little shots over and over.

    It’s all averages with exceptions, but that largely conforms to my experiences. Looking at real life is a lot more interesting than positing how thing ought to be.

  17. I wonder if it is part of establishing the pecking order. Perhaps men are quicker to threaten or use violence to establish social dominance, and therefore might use size to determine pecking order nonverbally. If women are slower to threaten or use violence, then superiority must be established using other means.

  18. In bands of hunter gathers, there are strong pressures on men to conform to an egalitarian ethos. Since this is ultimately enforced by violence, a lot of this is weeded out when the state gets a monopoly on violence.

    Pressures for women to conform are not generally enforced by violence so they are more likely to stick around/ be rediscovered under civilization.

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