Inconspicuous sources of behavioral control: the case of gendered practices.
Author: Ruiz, Maria R.
Pub Date: 01/01/2003
Publication: Name: The Behavior Analyst Today Publisher: Behavior Analyst Online Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2003 Behavior Analyst Online ISSN: 1539-4352
Issue: Date: Wntr, 2003 Source Volume: 4 Source Issue: 1
Accession Number: 170020100
Full Text: Until recently, behavior analysts have remained conspicuously silent on the topic of gender. Understood as a case of socially constructed knowledge maintained by social contingencies in verbal communities, gender related processes are a pervasive aspect of our cultural fabric. Yet, the control exerted by gendered practices is subtle and typically defies detection. A deeper understanding of the control exerted by gendered cultural practices would enrich the field of behavior analysis. At the same time, a behavior analytic approach brought to bear on the analysis of gender related social processes would represent a fresh and unique perspective particularly as it might apply to the analysis of social contingencies and reinforcement patterns within verbal communities.


Gender is a topic about which behavior analysts have historically remained conspicuously silent. Recent treatments of the topic by behavior analysts (Biglan, 1995 Guerin, 1984, Ruiz, 1995, 1998, Vogeltanz, Sigmon and Vickers, 1998) are promising evidence that our field is beginning to join an important conversation that has been taking place for quite some time. A behavior analytic perspective applied to the study of gender as a case of socially constructed knowledge shaped and maintained by social contingencies and reinforcement patterns within the verbal community may contribute unique insights to the current literature. At the same time, exploring the rich an complex issues involved in the study of gender related process could potentially enrich our discipline's understanding of sources of control that impact the behavior of those we work with as well as our own.

There is an extensive literature that raises important and challenging questions about sex and gender that could be of interest to many behavior analysts. In this paper I offer a behavior analytic conceptualization of gender, and discuss several findings of interest including: the discriminative control of gendered practices and the interaction of sex, gendered practices and interpretive repertoires. I conclude with a discussion of some of implications of this work for behavior analysts.

When We Speak of Gender

Sociologists Candace West and Don Zimmerman (1987) coined the phrase 'doing gender'. Many feminist psychologists favor this phrase over plain 'gender' and use it to "designate how sex is a salient social and cognitive category through which information is filtered, selectively processed, and differentially acted upon to produce self-fulfilling prophecies about men and women" (Crawford, 1995 p. 2). The cognitive slant notwithstanding, feminist psychologists want to emphasize that gender is not a personal attribute, but rather that gender organizes people into groups categorically, and characterizes social relations. Behavior analysts would agree that gender should not be construed as a characteristic of the individual. We might also find the phrase 'doing gender' to be more useful, though for different reasons. From a behavioral perspective 'doing gender' or gendering may be a reasonable way of speaking about a class of cultural practices that have come to be associated with sex as a biological category. How the two come to be conflated is worth elaborating if only briefly.

The foundation of the conceptual framework at work in our culture includes a series of important dualisms. The person environment split is a dualism that is foundational to our culture's belief in individualism and the self as locus or agent of action. A second dualism at work in our culture is based on sexual designations as separate and distinct biological categories. Thus individuals are characterized as women or men by virtue of their sex. The biological designations have given rise to the development and elaboration of complex cultural practices associated with sexual status. It is this collective of cultural practices, including and perhaps most importantly verbal practices, that we tact when we speak of 'doing gender' or gendering. Thus gendering involves yet a third foundational dualism constituted of the feminine and the masculine.

Gendering and Cultural Practices

Historically cultural practices associated with the feminine and the masculine have developed within different and separate contextual spheres. Traditionally, the masculine has been associated with the public sphere of work while the feminine has been associated with the private sphere of the home and family. While many changes have been promoted in response to the contemporary women's movement, enduring dichotomies and associated inequities persist. Perhaps most conspicuous at the social-structural level are gendering practices that reflect the public/private sphere split in the area of work. The wage differential by sex has remained fairly constant for more than half a century cutting across all socioeconomic levels and sectors (Rix, 1991). Thus the degree of education does not level the field. This imbalance of resources is directly related to the imbalance of power between men and women in our culture.

Sex as a Discriminative Stimulus for Gendered Practices

Gendered practices in our culture mean that women and men participate under vastly different cultural contingencies. The work by Sadker and Sadker (1994) identified disturbing social realities in American classrooms. Direct observations of classroom practices spanning over 25 years revealed that a child's sex exerts powerful discriminative control over teacher behavior. Specifically, male children receive an overwhelming proportion of the resources managed by teachers and are clearly selected in the classroom. A related and consistent finding is that teachers are typically unaware that the child's sex is exerting discriminate control over their classroom practices. That is, the vast majority are not able to tact the very differential contingencies they administer. While it may not surprise behavior analysts that such stimulus control relations remain undetected (un-tacted) by teachers, these findings should give us pause as they highlight the subtleties and veracity of the control over behavior exerted by gendered practices. These educational practices have come to be known as the Hidden Curriculum.

There have also been interesting findings on the combined control exerted by gender and race. Amongst girls, for example, Jacqueline Irvine (1986) found that black females are least likely to get specific critical-constructive feedback. The students most likely to receive teacher time and attention are white males, followed by minority males, white females are next, and finally minority females. In addition, and in concert with the Sadker's (1994) findings, Irvine (1986) reported content analyses of the interactions between teachers and students further showing that girls are twice as likely as boys to be praised for appearance of their work and following the rules. On the other hand, when boys are praised, it is more likely to be for the quality of their ideas and their work.

These trends in teacher-student interactions in the early grades have been related to data depicting gender gaps in how students speak of themselves and their abilities, and to actual test scores. Students' depictions of themselves are well documented in a national survey conducted by the American Association of University Women (1990) that included three thousand children in grades 4 through 10 from 12 different locations nationwide. The survey showed, for example, an increasing and highly disturbing gender gap to the question "I'm happy with the way I am". While in elementary school a 7% difference-favoring males was recorded, the percent of high school girls answering yes to this question trailed males by 16% points. Similar trends and gender gaps were revealed in the extent to which students expressed interest in math and science and career expectations. As far as actual test scores Sadker and Sadker (1994) point out that females are the only group in America to begin school testing ahead and leave having fallen behind. The gender gap in SAT scores, for example, shows a 50 to 60 point lead-favoring boys. It is not surprising, therefore that as women move from high school to college they tend to adopt less challenging career options (Holland & Eisenhart, 1990). The gender bias that underlies the Hidden Curriculum operates to creates micro-inequities which, when looked at individually might appear insignificant. On the other hand, as a functional class of cultural practices they have a powerful and cumulative impact.

In the Eye of the Beholder: Gendered Interpretive Repertoires

Another interesting aspect of the subtle control exerted by gendered practices relates to their influence on interpretive repertoires (Ruiz, 1998). A well-documented finding is the tendency of observers to interpret the same behavior differently depending on the sex of the actor engaging in the behavior, particularly when the behavior in question is verbal behavior. Assertive behavior is an excellent illustration because it became the focal point of a research trend that began in the 1970's and grew to monumental proportions in the 1980's with over 1600 works published in one decade (Ruben, 1985). Assertive behavior has been defined as asking for what one wants and refusing what one doesn't want (Booraem & Flowers, 1978) and has bees explicitly contrasted to passive (Lange & Jacubowski, 1976) and to aggressive (Rakos, 1979) behavior. It is not uncommon for women's appropriate assertive behavior to be labeled as aggressive, angry or 'bitchy' (Fodor & Rothblum, 1984; Solomon & Rothblum, 1985). One consistent finding has been that assertive behavior tends to be evaluated differently depending on whether the individual engaging in the behavior is a man or a woman. In contrast to men, women speaking assertively tend to be judged as less likable (e.g. Cohen, Bunker, Burton, & McManus, 1978; Crawford, 1988; Kelly, Kern, Kirkley, Patterson, & Keane, 1980) and have less influence on listeners (Carli, 1990; Costrich, Feinstein, Kidder, Marecek, & Pascaleb, 1975; Sterling & Owen, 1982) particularly when the listener is male. Thus, the sex of the speaker may influence a listener's interpretation of the verbal behavior as well as its functional effectiveness.

Given that in our culture females and males are exposed to vastly, though subtly, different social contingencies, it is not surprising that under many circumstances men and women interpret the same events or circumstances differently. An interesting and legally challenging illustration is the case of sexual harassment. Since the 1970's organizations and institutions have been forced to incorporate into their policies and codes of conduct concerns relating to "sexual harassment". But while codified changes attest to the societal recognition that sexual harassment is a significant social problem, studies have shown that the conditions tacted by the term "sexual harassment" differ widely across the sexes. For example, women consistently identify more experiences as sexual harassment than do men, and the factor that most consistently predicts differences in what acts will be labeled as "sexual harassment", is the sex or the observer/interpreter (cf. Riger, 1991). An extensive discourse analysis by Kitzinger and Thomas (1995) found that most men reported underlying sexual interest on the part of the harasser as a necessary condition for tacting sexual harassment. Many women, by contrast, were explicit in stating that the events they were describing as sexual harassment were not sexual per se, but rather were events that functioned in terms of power. Since the term is subject to different interpretations it is not surprising that researchers and policy makers have found it difficult to clearly define the topic and create standards of practice to address it.


Control from social contingencies is subtle and inconspicuous. Gendered cultural practices maintained by social contingencies illustrate a pervasive source of subtle social control in our culture. Social contingencies, unlike contingencies set forth by the physical environment, can be illusive to an observer. I cannot walk through a wall, and an observer reporting on my efforts to do so can describe my behavior and its consequences. The effects of social consequences, on the other hand, are not necessarily obvious to an observer. For example, a woman interviewing for a management position may speak assertively, but may fail to be hired because the interviewer finds her style offensively aggressive. While these consequences are as real and impacting to the woman as any control exerted by the physical environment, to an observer watching the interview on tape the social consequences of the woman's verbal behavior may go undetected. Unlike the control exerted by the physical environment, social consequences often go unrecognized by the observer because they involve a history of social interaction, they are intermittent and they are generalized (see Biglan, 1995).

When we look towards the relations between classes of sex-based differential selection practices we can identify metacontingencies. These, like the patterns suggested in the research on the Hidden Curriculum represent outcomes of interlocking actions that may go beyond direct and immediately detectable effects on the individual. One such outcome is the invisible barriers that keep many women from reaching top positions in business popularly labeled the glass ceiling: The woman can see her goal, but she bumps into a barrier that is both invisible and impenetrable (Lorber, 1993). Therefore when we speak of gendered cultural practices, we are speaking of forms of social control related to power and dominance relations that bear directly on the level of access that an individual or group of individuals may have to sources of reinforcement or resource allocation.

One challenge for behavior analysts is to understand how these types of cultural metacontingencies participate in our context of discovery and our ability to be effective (Ruiz, 1995). Cultural assumptions are ubiquitous, and as Bolling (in press) points out they operate in any intervention with an interpersonal component. Behavioral interventions are no exception. It is true that behavior analysts strive to stay at the level of observation and description in their interventions following Skinner (1950) who objected to "... any explanation of an observed fact which appeals to events taking place somewhere else, at some other level of observation, described in different terms, and measured, if at all, in different dimensions." (p.193). Our self stated efforts at objectivity notwithstanding, our observations, descriptions and functional analyses are not immune to our culture-bound assumptions, including those about sex and gendered practices. This fact has prompted Iwamasa (1997) to note that without such awareness, "a functional analysis of behavior may be more a function of who is doing the analysis ... than what is being analyzed" (p.348).

Returning briefly to the assertiveness training research will help to illustrate the potential problems. Assertiveness was conceptualized as a set of skills that could be trained and behaviorally oriented therapists endorsed assertiveness training to replace maladaptive forms of communicating (Lange & Jakubowski, 1976; Erwin, 1978). Years later we realized that installing an assertiveness training program for women in the workplace, for example, without analyzing the social contingencies involving status and power would be irresponsible. Yet this is an example of the potential dangers that we face when we essentialize the notion of skill or behavior.

Behavior analytic work cannot be held separate from the cultural contingencies and metacontingencies that select and maintain our community's verbal practices. If, as Skinner (1950, 1957) advocated, we should endeavor to come under precise control of our subject matter, then deliberate interrogations about inconspicuous sources of behavioral control embedded in cultural metacontingencies could only contribute to our effective action by helping us to uncover sources of unexplained variance that challenge the effectiveness of our practices.


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Maria R. Ruiz

Rollins College

Maria R. Ruiz Department of Psychology Rollins College Winter Park, Fl 32789
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