The High Cost of Low Expectations: Gender Dynamics at Home and Work

A few months after the birth of my third son, I flew with the baby and our four-year-old to visit the East coast. My husband stayed home with our two-year-old. When I told people about the upcoming trip, they said, "Yikes, what will your husband do? Will he be ok?" or, "Wow, you have a fabulous husband!"  

All commentary focused on my husband's situation. Not a single remark was made about my role as a traveler with two young children. 

Several months later, my husband flew with the baby—and only the baby—on his own East coast trip. I stayed home with the two older boys. This time, comments ranged from, "Wow, he's brave to fly alone all day with a baby!" to, "Oh, man, at least he'll have some help when he gets to the other end!"  

Again, all attention, be it concern or praise, was focused exclusively toward my husband.  

Life seldom aligns itself into such a clean experimental setup. I love these parallel travel stories because the role of gender is so clearly isolated and exposed. 

In both scenarios, I managed two children while my husband managed one. While I traveled with two kids, people praised his ability to manage at home with one. While I stayed home with two kids, people praised my husband's ability to manage on the road with one. It defied logic. 

Logic, of course, was not the driver of people's reactions. The reactions came from the deeply gendered expectations we have of parents. My husband earned praise in both scenarios because, even in 2017, the concept of a man able to confidently parent on his own, either at home or on the road, is somehow unexpected. On the other side, it's simply assumed that, as a mother, I will handle any of these scenarios competently and willingly. It's my job. 

If the gendering of parental expectations doesn't seem self-evident to you, start listening to the way your peers with small children describe their partners. My female friends use the phrase, "He's a great dad!" all the time in reference to their spouses. From what I can see of their relationships, they are right. But all of these women are highly engaged wives and mothers, too, and I can't recall any examples of their husbands saying, publicly, "She's a great mom!" Why would they? These women are simply meeting expectations. There's no reason to make a fuss. 

 My husband braving Seatac airport alone with our infant. He posted this photo to Facebook, where dozens of commenters agreed: He is such a great dad!

My husband braving Seatac airport alone with our infant. He posted this photo to Facebook, where dozens of commenters agreed: He is such a great dad!

It can be irritating to witness my husband regularly earning praise just for engaging with our kids, while my equivalent involvement goes unnoticed. When he takes our children to the grocery store, people frequently stop him to tell him what a great dad he is, and even to thank him for giving his wife a break. When I take the kids out, my work is largely invisible. The rare comment I get is generally a variation on, "Wow, you've really got your hands full!" It is more indictment than compliment. 

Displays of imbalanced expectations are irritating, but they are harmless.* Irritation gives way to real damage, though, when these gendered expectations around parenting carry over into the workplace.  

I had a manager once ask me, while we were planning a visit to a business partner: Who would watch my kids while I was traveling? I was so confused about the question's purpose that I couldn't even answer confidently. "Um...My husband?" "Oh. Ok." That settled the matter during this particular interaction. But I have to wonder how many client visits was I never even told about, or conference slots was I not considered for, because someone mistakenly assumed that I couldn't or wouldn't leave my family for a few nights. 

Gendered expectations in professional settings can of course extend well beyond expectations around parenting. They can extend all the way to expectations about core professional competencies.  

Many years ago, I built a phone app for a hackathon project, using a new programming language. Upon completion, my engineering lead asked me who had taught me the programming language. I told him I'd learned it as I went, and I gave a shout-out to Stack Overflow. He asked me again: Who had helped me? "Really, you did this all by yourself? Are you sure?"  

At the time of this hackathon, I was young, and I was actually tickled by the interaction. I thought, If it's this hard for him to believe that I built this by myself, then what I did must have been harder than I thought! I must have really killed it! Indeed, seemingly confirming this, my lead's esteem for me did go up that day. He treated me afterward as a technical equal, correcting something that I hadn't even noticed was a problem until after it was fixed. Later, when he moved on, he even recruited me to his new venture. I stayed behind, but I was buoyed by his vote of confidence. 

Since then, I have realized that my engineering lead was impressed by my basic ability to do the job I'd been hired for. That is not flattering. That is a huge problem. What opportunities had I missed out on in the months leading up to this incident, because my lead didn't think I could handle them? What language had been used to discuss my performance when I wasn't present? How many other people in my orbit continued to expect incompetence from me, simply because I hadn't yet provided them with a direct demonstration of excellence? 

In the family sphere, I am granted the default expectation of competence, while my husband is not. He can earn praise simply for changing a diaper, while it is expected that I will devote myself expertly and continuously to my family. Professionally, though, the expectations are reversed. Competence is the default expectation granted to my husband, but it's granted only unpredictably to me. Technical credibility is his to lose, and mine to earn. 

The consequences of this inequality do not affect us equally. 

It makes no difference to us that fellow shoppers at the grocery store are surprised by my husband's competence as a father. Their low expectations are not causing him to miss out on a promotion to super-dad, or costing him opportunities to join more glamorous or more lucrative families in the future. The comments of strangers affect him only insofar as they provide small moments of positivity during the execution of mundane tasks. I don't begrudge him that. 

It makes a huge difference to me, however, that fellow professionals are surprised by my competence as a technologist. Low expectations can lead interviewers to treat me more aggressively, or to jump to no-hire decisions without truly assessing my capabilities. The same problems can lead to my being passed over for promotions. I blame gendered expectations, in part, for the performance review in which I was asked to please be less aggressive, but to please also work to increase my impact and visibility. Sadly, this is a common theme in feedback given to professional women.  

Ultimately, all of these experiences taken together can lead women like me to question whether it's even worth it to remain in the tech world. I wish I could find a parallel here between my experience and my husband's. He never considers quitting fatherhood (or tech, for that matter), and he never gets frustrated when he is confronted by low expectations of his parenting. He's able to smile and move on. People's expectations of his parenting don't have the same personal consequences for him as their expectations about my professional skills do for me. 

It's true that I, and others like me, can overcome the low expectations of any given individual through demonstrations of competence, as my husband does at the supermarket. It's also true that we cannot scale ourselves to provide personal demonstrations to everyone in our orbits whose influence matters. 

My experience with professional expectations is shaped primarily by my gender, but the degree to which we are all asked to jump through credibility-establishing hoops varies with the degree to which we are straight, white, male, cis, hoodie-wearing, etc. Most of us can clear the hoops in our paths as necessary. But, while we're busy jumping, others have already begun the real work of building things. It's exhausting to catch up.  

It's not lost on me that I feel periodically exhausted by this, even while expectations actually work to my advantage in most dimensions aside from gender (I do refuse to wear a hoodie to work). It's a wonder that we see any minorities in computing at all. It's not a wonder that the places where they're found are usually awesome places to work. 

So, what's to be done? Well, my experiences are mine alone, but they are variations on an extremely common theme. Gender bias is increasingly being recognized and discussed in private and public conversations, in the press, and in academic research.  

To do justice to the existing ideas and resources that address gender and other types of bias, I prefer to compile them in a separate post rather than attach them as afterthoughts here. In the meantime, if anyone has their own strategies or tactics for handling tough situations born from incorrect assumptions, I'd love to hear about them. 

 

*Gendered expectations in the family realm are harmless to me personally because my circumstances are both privileged and lucky. Societally, though, I believe that these expectations limit the choices and undermine the family-related contributions of both men and women. A topic to return to another day...