Monday, November 2, 2015

Women as Liars: Perpetuating the Myth of Female Deception

As Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton recently wrapped up another 11 hours at the House Select Committee for Benghazi, it has become difficult not to be skeptical of the underlying motives of Senate Republicans in their quest for what they have openly been calling their gotcha moment. After three years of unremitting questioning, what message are they really putting forth?

That message, developed since the 2012 attack in Libya, seems to be that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is lying, and inevitably the truth will out. Given enough time and enough harassment, another woman will be shown to be the untrustworthy liar that she is. Untrustworthy in her rank as one of the most powerful political figures in the world, untrustworthy in her ability to oversee difficult situations, untrustworthy in her ability to speak the truth to the American people, and untrustworthy in her ability to govern, given her candidacy in the upcoming election. The message, although cloaked in political subterfuge, is one that is all too familiar to women: women are liars that cannot be trusted.

While not all are subject to the same magnifying lens as Mrs. Clinton, we are aware of some pervasive beliefs about women as liars. Most prominently, perhaps, is the rape myth: that a large portion of women lie about sexual violence committed against them.


There are several essential layers to the breakdown of the rape myth. What is clear is that women lying about rape (The FBI reports about 2 to 8%) is a very small portion of the number of rapes reported (460 000 reported in Canada in 2014) - and the number of rapes reported is a small portion of the number of rapes that actually occur (according to the Toronto Police in 2014, only 6% are reported). While 2 to 8% still seems high, this article superbly illustrates the many complexities behind this oft quoted percentage, demonstrating the many reasons why survivors may recant on their reporting (these include invasive police investigation techniques, biased trial proceeding, lack of support systems and that police departments don't make the distinction between 'lies' and reports that can't be prosecuted).

It is easier to believe that women lie about sexual violence, because it plays into the narrative of women as temptresses that has been well trawled out through history. The repercussions of not believing women, however, are particularly punishing: it tells women that they are worthless and disposable, not only to the men who rape them, but to a society who will always take a man's word over hers. When a woman reports a rape, both statistics around the world and general morality should push us to believe her, including recent reports that campus sexual assault are committed by offenders that are likely to recommit violent sexual crimes an average of 6 times. Somewhere, a lie is being told, but it is not the women who are telling it.

Indeed, it is precisely history that has set women up as this constant trope: they are temptresses who use and test men for love, money and sex (think Cixi, Anne Boleyn, Catherine the Great), they are not to be trusted within religious texts (Eve, Bathsheba, Jezebel), and are often described as the downfall of man (think Cleopatra, Mary I, Mary Magdalene). Guy de Maupassant famously stated that even the simplest of women are wonderful liars, capable of extricating themselves of any situation with a skill bordering on genius. Many original laws or general policy required a man's presence or signature to give worth to a woman's decision - these remain, of course, in some countries: Saudi Arabia requires two women to testify against a man (does it take 25 here?). Women could not be trusted in what they said, wanted, nor did, without validation from a man.

The persisting dominant power imbalances demonstrate an interesting intersection between women as victims in need of male supervision and their help, and women as liars. Both feed into each other to suit the power structure of a man as a dominant and truthful force opposite a woman as both weak and a liar. It is safe to assume, however, that precisely because of these power imbalances, women had many reasons to lie to better her position or access to resources. Lying might allow for access to financial resources and serve to protect women and their children, as the private sphere remained outside of the law's reach until very recently, and resources, completely out of a woman's grasp.


Of course, we know that men lie too.  Men lie on average three times more than woman, and are encouraged to do so within the confines of a capitalist market that encourages deception and persuasion, but even across other fields, men tend to commit fraud far more than women, when presented with the opportunity. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to be cautious in their approaches toward economic gain, and are found to have different core values, based on relationships and social good, in their motivation toward risk. Indeed, the behaviour, including deliberate concealment of financial transactions that aided terrorism, wide-spread financial fraud and grand-scale tax-evasion that led to the 2008 financial crisis has been widely understood to be part of a normalized trend that promotes deception and fraud in the banking industry... and yet no punishment has been laid in a significant way.

Lying has not, however, been associated with maleness, because men still retain positions of power associated with truth. Laws are created and enforced by a body of practitioners that remains predominantly men. Positions of authority in the many levels of politics that lead to policy creation are predominantly held by men. Positions of power in companies, in religious institutes, in educational facilities, in the media and in regulatory bodies are heavily male. Enforcers of laws from municipal to federal, are predominantly men. These different bodies of power have long been associated with upholding and enforcing the truth, preserving a male definition of what the truth is and how it is defined.

In boardrooms, where men still hold the majority of senior management positions, Pew research shows that women are confronted with more obstacles to gain a seat at the table, often described as proofs of worth. Men belong at the table, women have to prove themselves worthy of being there. We still do not believe that women are capable of doing what men can do and the baseline remains inevitably male.

Studies have shown that men executives who spoke more than their peers were rated as 10% more competent, while women executives who spoke more were rated by their colleagues as 14% less competent. Men who contribute ideas that bring in company profit and who speak out in meetings are rated more favourably in performance evaluations by their managers, while the same behaviour by women does not improve manager's perception of their value or their helpfulness. This, despite teams with more women being associated with being smarter, more empathetic, better communicators and outperforming teams on output who have less women. Men will gain from these circumstances, while women won't or will even be punished for their participation.

Showing emotion also disadvantages the women who would seek to confront these stereotypes or act similarly to their male peers in the workplace. Men's anger is seen as objective, showing leadership, initiative and persuasion. Women's anger is seen as emotional, a personality flaw, untrustworthy. Women who demonstrate anger lose influence over and the confidence of their peers, while men demonstrating similar emotions gain both. While already fraught with negative repercussions in the workplace, not taking women's expressions of anger or sentiment seriously has caused major harm in another industry: healthcare. In hospitals, women are less likely to be treated as aggressively as men, until they have proven their illnesses are as severe, often described as the 'Yentl Syndrome' in the medical community. Leslie Jamison's brilliant essay "A Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain" perfectly describes the many ways women's pain has been mocked, minimized and silenced.

A woman's mere presence in certain spheres is enough to justify suspicion. When Jessica Mendoza recently became the first woman to call a nationally televised playoff game of baseball, she was immediately subject to gendered lines of questioning: why was she there? What right did she have? What did she know, given that she was a woman? Ms. Mendoza, despite her years of experience, isn't the voice of knowledge, competence or truth. That voice belongs to a man. The questioning made this clear: she shouldn't be in this position.

Of course believing that women are liars permeates much more than our professional or social interactions. It also imbues our understanding of personal relationships. Women are too often believed to have a 'hidden' agenda in relationships, mainly linked to their biological desire for children, or an innate 'gold digger' mentality. In relationships, men know better: have better perspectives, know better what is right, and know better about what a woman will do or say before she has done either. Again, her anger is volatile, emotional, uncontrollable. A man's anger has purpose, is excusable, and does not denote personality flaws.

Believing a woman would have significant ramifications on the existing power relations between the sexes. Women being taken at their word, and being trusted in their abilities and reasoning would mean that they belonged in the same positions of power that men do, without needing to justify their place. It would indicate that the norm is no longer male, but that women can, innately, be leaders of forming, stating and enforcing the truth. What would that mean for those currently in positions of power?

Tropes persist and play out, none more so than in the political shouting matches broadcast with biased media commentary and traditional stereotypes plastered across headlines. The negative repercussions of not believing women are far and wide. Luckily as more women move into the upper echelons of the corporate and political worlds, they will serve as role models not only for younger women, but also younger men, who will be part of future generations that see women's belonging to these structures as normalized. This may help to change the discussion around who can be trusted, as women are seen in these positions, and younger generations believe this to be their normal place. 

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