Invisible Men

It isn't only women who have been invisible in psychology.

Posted Feb 14, 2020

jazzmxx/Shutterstock
Source: jazzmxx/Shutterstock

There is now an excellent body of research that casts light on the hidden figures of women in psychology—the invisibility of women in scales of development, in car safety design, and even in supposedly universal health apps. [1] But the hidden figures of boys and men, who can also disappear from psychological studies, are ignored. They are ignored not as a result of “male biases” but as a result of what could more aptly be called “macho bias”—a cultural bias about men rather than a favorable bias towards men.  

I will focus on two studies to illustrate this point, and I hope readers will suggest others.

First, I look at a study from which men were absent, yet which generated conclusions about men. This is the 1985 paper that flagged the now-familiar Impostor Syndrome (originally called Impostor Phenomenon): the set of beliefs and assumptions and feelings centered on self-perceived intellectual phoniness. The 150 successful women in the study had achieved high test scores, were awarded degrees in higher education, and had been given recognition from organizations in which they worked; yet they were afraid they were “impostors” who did not really belong among other “bright, competent people.” They also feared that at any moment, they and their deficiencies would be exposed, leaving them shamed and bereft.  

The authors of this important paper, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, observed that, in spite of their success, many women in their sample “lacked internal acknowledgment of their accomplishments.” [2] They discounted the evidence of praise, prizes, or promotions, convinced that their success was either down to luck or to error. Given that one special feeling was that they did not really belong among the intelligent and talented people who worked alongside them, the conclusion, in this women-only sample, was that self-perceived intellectual phoniness was more common in women. 

The formulation of this syndrome, along with its special connection to women, spread like wildfire. While it is not a mental disorder, it can, the researchers argued, be debilitating for women—preventing them from demanding their dues in the workplace or in the home, magnifying self-doubt to the extent that any challenge frightened rather than inspired them.  

The authors cautioned that more research was needed on men, and a few papers, including Imes’ earlier (1979) doctoral dissertation, noted the phenomenon in men as well as women; but what soon became known as the Impostor Syndrome was primarily seen as a woman’s problem. Several papers arguing that the effect was at least as common in men as in women were published, but not in scholarly journals. Moreover, it was argued that even if men did experience this Syndrome, they were not as debilitated by it as women. It was not until 2010, over 30 years after the first paper, that its equal prevalence in men began to be recognized—albeit not yet, as far as I know, in a scholarly article. [3]

My argument is not that researchers have been dishonest or willfully blind. I am in no position to take a moral high ground, since my second example of how many men remain hidden from psychological data is drawn in part from my own work.  

It began with the challenge to prevalent theories of female adolescent development that were skewed by male norms. Girls were said to lag behind the boys in their development because they remained closely attached to their families [4] or because they used more personal-focused arguments when they grappled with moral questions. [5] 

Then, in 1982, Carol Gilligan used the startling phrase "In a Different Voice" [6] to define the subtle ways girls engaged with moral dilemmas. She pointed out that girls' thoughts were as subtle, nuanced, and sophisticated as boys, but all that dropped out of the frame when the boys’ development was taken as the template or scale. 

A few years later, I showed how teen girls’ worked to revitalize their relationship with their mothers, and how the continuing bond was a route to growth. [7] At that time, I argued that the goal of psychological separation from parents, then seen as the adolescent’s developmental task, was based on what boys do, and had omitted the complex work girls do in adolescence to adjust and alter the relationships, keeping not cutting them.

I now see that my assumptions about boys’ adolescent development drew on the macho biases that had rendered many boys invisible. That biased lens was removed when I studied the paths from adolescence to adulthood in both girls and boys. [8] I saw that what I had described as teen girls’ development within the family, by altering but maintaining connection, was also relevant to boys. 

A better conclusion to my earlier studies would be, “We have missed something in girls and boys,” as opposed to my conclusion, “We know what occurs in boys and what we see in girls’ development is very different.” New discoveries about either girls or boys, men or women, should inspire us to take a new look at what we think we know about either girls or boys, men or women.

Rather than having a male bias, adolescent development had been suffering from a macho bias that equated emotional independence and separation with maturity. When we saw how teenage girls and women were different from this model, we had taken only the first step towards full human visibility. The next step was to see that not only had girls been invisible; many boys were, too.

The goal of greater visibility changes how we see the world, not just how we see one part of the world. It is a goal that may never be reached, fully and finally. Humans are too embedded in their cultures, too multi-faceted, and change too rapidly for psychologists’ work ever to be finished. But the journey involves not only including more diverse experiences (though that is important!). It also involves using what we learn from new groups to reassess what we think we know about other groups. As we constantly aim for better vision, each newly achieved frame should be used to look afresh at those we have left behind.

References

1.   Caroline Criado Perez. 2019. Invisible Women. Chatto and Windus.

2.    Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. 1978. The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. 15 (3): 241-247.  

3.    Royse Roskowki, Jane. 2010. Impostor Phenomenon and Counselling Self-Efficacy: The Impact of Impostor Feelings”. Ball State University.

4.    Erik Erikson. 1968. Identity, Youth and Culture. W.W. Norton.

5.    Laurence Kohlberg. 1976. Moral stages and Moralization: The Cognitive Developmental Approach. In T. Likona (ed.) Moral Development and Behavior, Holt, Reinhart and Winston.

6.    Carol Gilligan, 1983. In a Different Voice.  Harvard University Press.

7.    Terri Apter. 1991. Altered Loves: mothers and daughters during adolescence. Random House. 

8.    Terri Apter. 2001. The Myth of Maturity. W.W. Norton.