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Manly Metaphors and Academic Power Games


We could relabel this diagram according to the gender hierarchy in geology: real men at the inner core, wannabe men hanging around in the outer core, cowards and lazy boys seeking safety in the mantle, and girls peering in from the muddy fringe.


Years ago, I went out with a renowned geology professor.  He was a lovely man, intelligent and funny. Also modest about his accomplishments, in an endearing way.

One evening he explained to me, in a lightly self-mocking voice, that one of the reasons his work commanded so much respect was that he studied the deepest parts of the earth, the volcanic core.  He had to travel to one of very few special labs around the world, once or twice a year, to do his research.  With a chuckle, he observed that this gave him status because, in geology, the harder the rocks you studied, the bigger deal you were. Volcanic rocks were best. The ones closest to the earth’s center were the highest status of all. If you liked sedimentary stone, you were doomed to lesser journals and lower salaries.

“So, you mean like ‘real men do hard rocks’?” I asked incredulously.  “Exactly,” he said, shrugging.  We went on for a few minutes discussing the way that arbitrary compartmentalizations of a field very often determine status in academics.  And then we mused about how gender metaphors were often overlaid on these classifications of power.  It wasn’t enough that “doing hard rocks” made you a good scholar, it also made you more manly.  And, by implication, the softer your rocks, the softer everything else about you was presumed to be.

This “hard rocks versus soft rocks” schema is a perfect example of a useful concept that 50 years of Marxist thought brought to the academy:  ideology.  Sociologists, anthropologists, and all other social science disciplines have learned that people develop patterns of belief that dress up and justify their power systems. Such a belief pattern (the ideology), wherever you find one, shares with all other such clusters of thought one distinguishing characteristic:  if you poke at it even a little bit, it becomes obvious bullshit (in Marxist terminology, its “contradictions” are revealed), nevertheless, people go about their lives, setting their clocks to it and allocating their food by it.  They treat it as a given and the belief becomes utterly invisible to them (“naturalized,” as they used to say).


Think these kinds of desert rock formations are cool? Look away quickly! The very impulse could make you girly.

Think these kinds of desert rock formations are cool? Look away quickly! That impulse could make you girly.


My guess is that somewhere out there in geology, you would find women studying hard rocks and muscle men studying dirt. I suspect there is nothing inherently more demanding about studying one or the other type of rock–and that you have to be pretty smart to make a career out of researching any of it. The molten rock thought to surround the earth’s core throws a wrench into the whole metaphor. Nevertheless, this is the organizing belief system and I have no doubt that money and prestige and promotions follow it, because that is what happens in every discipline.

Today, Bloomberg Businessweek posts a blog I wrote in response to the recent flap over the bad gender situation at UCLA’s business school.  The essay argues that the gender politics at UCLA are not unique, but merely a microcosm of a power struggle that occurs across the entire field.  Thanks to the folks at the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, I was able to get data to illustrate the resulting inequalities–such as lower pay for women at every level in every discipline for the whole sample of reporting US schools.  And I have addressed the most easily understood myths used to “explain” these discriminatory acts: women love children, women are bad at math, and women shouldn’t care about money. The academic ideology, however, is probably a bit much for a business blog. So here goes.


In business school ideology, only real men have the muscle to wield "hard" methods. Like men use swords and women use knitting needles, get it?

In business school ideology, only real men have the muscle to wield “hard” methods. Like, men use swords and women are afraid, get it?


In business schools, the ideology is something about real men using “hard methods” and women using “soft” ones. The “hard” and “soft” in this case is mapped on to mathematics, rather than rock density. Using the most threadbare of gender stereotypes, discriminatory actions are widely justified with the assertion that women don’t use quantitative methods. Qualitative methods–where you interview or observe, then write up what you found–are said to be “soft.” Women are thought to use soft methods because they are not good at math and are afraid to handle the research tools men use.

It’s easy to see that volcanic rocks are harder than sand or mud, but what, exactly, is it that is harder about quantitative methods? Well, immediately, the implication is that doing math is simply more difficult than speaking and writing. Thus, women are not as smart as men and should be treated accordingly.

The whole body of research into the cognitive abilities of men versus women in mathematics has this bottom line:  there is no difference. Furthermore, to my knowledge, no one has ever done a study to determine whether women, in fact, do less quantitative research than men in business schools. I find that male colleagues project on me that I only do qualitative research, when in fact I use multiple methods, including laboratory experiments and randomized controlled trials–and I am currently designing a major measurement system. The truth is most colleagues really don’t know much about what I do and, after all, I am visibly female and, therefore, must be “soft.” So, I wonder, do women actually do less “quant” work?  I don’t think we know.

Topics are also “soft” and “hard.” Sometimes the judgment depends only on whether the phenomenon can be measured; sometimes it’s just a topic that the majority of business academics (overwhelmingly male) don’t like, don’t see as important. The fact that I do research on women makes me not only soft, but irrelevant to business, as I have been told too many times to count. Other women in business schools report getting sorted into the same derisive bins–and, indeed, one of the most disturbingly familiar aspects of the UCLA situaton was that the men were constantly trashing the women’s research abilities and topics. In this usage, “hard” means “important in the eyes of men.”

There is also a weird belief that somehow by translating something–anything–into numerical form, you make it “harder.”  So, if instead of saying “there are two bags of marshmallows in the cupboard as well as three cans of beans,” you create a “taxonomy” of what is in the cupboard and count what goes into each category (as in “bags of marshmallows, 2; cans of beans, 3”), the whole exercise suddenly becomes “hard.”  Both marshmallow bags and bean cans are miraculously transformed into suitably hard topics for research–despite all sensory evidence to the contrary–just by counting and noting with numbers rather than looking and writing the same information in words. At one time, I think you could have sold this notion to alchemists. Why do 21st century academics buy it?


The hard method school seems to feel that using numbers gives them mastery over the external world. So they get an illusion of control that they wouldn't otherwise have. They also claim that using numbers gives them the ability to predict the future. Numerologists, of course, say the same thing.

The hard method school seems to feel that using numbers gives them mastery over the external world. So they get an illusion of control that they wouldn’t otherwise have. They also claim that using numbers gives them the ability to predict the future. Numerologists, of course, say the same thing.


Back in the day, there may have been some justification for saying quantitative methods were harder.  You had to collect the data yourself, in large enough quantities to analyze the sample statistically, and then do the calculations by hand (or, even worse, spend hours writing routines or making computer cards that did it). No doubt it was hard work, in the sense that it was time-consuming and required concentration.