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31 August 2022

Pragya Agarwal: “Gender stereotypes are so deeply embedded in society”

The scientist and writer on being “over-emotional”, sexism in the workplace, and why women’s pain is less likely to be believed.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Ever since she was young, Pragya Agarwal has been called “over-emotional”. People would tell her she was “over-sensitive”, that she “feels too much”. Such comments intrigued her. “I’ve always wondered: what is too much? How do you define too much? Where are the boundaries and who lays down these boundaries?” she said. 

As a young lecturer at University College London – when she joined in her twenties she was both the first woman and the first person of colour to teach in the engineering department – Agarwal received cues on how she was expected to behave from the older, white men around her. She realised that she was expected to show “gravitas”, and so she learned how to portray the associated emotions: in many ways she acted “like a man”, she said. She was serious and authoritative, sometimes “a little bit aggressive”, and most importantly she never showed any weakness.  

“I was a single parent, I was trying to get a loan, I was commuting, I was travelling, I was handling this prestigious master’s programme,” Agarwal, now 45, said as she sat in a corner of the Tate Liverpool cafe sipping an iced coffee on a bright August afternoon. I believed that asking for help would be a sign of weakness, so I never asked.” Women of colour in particular might be inclined to over-work in order to prove themselves in a workplace that is often stacked against them. But Agarwal hid all this from her colleagues. In order to succeed, she had to make it seem as though she could tackle anything.  

These expectations are “tied in with this binary of masculine and feminine stereotypes that are so deeply embedded in our society”, she said. If the only people seen to be succeeding are men, and they act a certain way, women that hope to thrive will feel they ought to act similarly. “This becomes a culture,” Agarwal explained, to the extent “that you have to conform to it, otherwise you’re an outlier.

“But if you don’t bring your authentic self to the workplace, then you are suppressing parts of it. That has a huge mental health impact,” she continued, before quoting psychological research that suggests that suppressing emotions can lead to depression, insomnia and anxiety.

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Born in an Indian village in the foothills of the Himalayas, Agarwal was just 19 when she had her first child, and moved soon afterwards to the UK to study for a master’s degree in York. She went on to receive a PhD in Geographic Information Science from the University of Nottingham. Now a behaviour and data scientist and the founder of the think tank, 50 Percent Foundation, which investigates women’s rights around the world, she lives in Formby, Merseyside, with her husband and her two other children – twin six-year-old daughters.

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Agarwal’s academic background is in computer systems. Her first book, Sway, an exploration of unconscious bias, and her second, Wish We Knew What to Say, about how to talk to children about race, were both published in 2020. Her third, (M)otherhood, on the stigma surrounding motherhood, followed in 2021. Now, she has returned once more to how computers can emulate human personalities – and where they fall short. Her research into the importance of emotions in both political and personal spheres kept circling back round to the emotional stereotypes we ascribe to men and women. In her analytical and wide-ranging new book Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions, Agarwal details the science that suggests it is not our biology but how we are socialised in the culture around us that determines how we express emotions. She argues that the idea of “gendered emotions” – that women are intrinsically hysterical, timid, yet keen to please, while men are serious, measured and brave – is a falsehood with a long history, and has had destructive repercussions on the present day. 

One of the stereotype’s paradoxes is that women are perceived to be more sensitive to pain yet also more tolerant of it. “It’s an archaic trope that women are weak, and that they feel pain more easily,” Agarwal said. But women, typically aware of this trope, try not to conform to it by downplaying just how much pain they are in.  

At the same time women are often told that they can handle pain more than men – after all it is women who give birth. This is why many medical conditions specific to women, such as endometriosis, often take years to diagnose. Hysterical presents one study from the US that showed it takes an average of seven minutes longer for women to be seen by a doctor in cases of a heart attack compared with men. Since men are assumed to be stoic, when they do express pain medical professionals are more likely to believe their discomfort is real. 

Pre-supposed expectations about how men and women experience emotions influence legal decisions too. In the recent US defamation trial initiated by Johnny Depp over a 2018 article in which his ex-wife Amber Heard described herself as a survivor of domestic abuse, the interpretation of Heard’s emotions “played a huge role”, Agarwal said. We expect women trauma victims to be “passive and crying, weak and feeble, all the feminine stereotypes. But because she dared at times to break out of those tropes – she showed anger, she stood up for herself” – Heard was “penalised”, eventually losing the case.  

One of the jury members said that he knew Heard couldn’t be telling the truth because “she would answer one question and she would be crying and two seconds later she would turn ice cold”. This shows again “how women, in every context, have to navigate this very strict tightrope between what emotions are acceptable and what emotions are not acceptable”, Agarwal said.

In Hysterical, Agarwal reaches back to the medieval era to show how entrenched gender ideologies are in our society. Such historical stereotypes shaped the way gender hierarchies and societal authority was built – and little has changed since. “We look for evidence that supports our existing beliefs and attitudes because it creates cognitive discomfort to go against existing beliefs,” Agarwal said. Those for whom the status quo benefits are especially against challenges to the current order “because they see it as a sign of their position in society being threatened”.

In scientific research there is a “publication bias”, which results in the publication of more studies that show sex differences than those that disprove the theory. Many such studies, Agarwal points out in her book, have very small sample sizes. In lots of these experiments the scientists haven’t explored “between-group differences” – how the men in the sample differ from each other, not only how they differ from the women, for example. Using evidence in such a way is a “selection bias”: when you choose to publish only the evidence that fits with the hypothesis you had set out to prove.

“It is so much easier to say that there is some innate difference [between men and women’s brains] than to think that it’s our society that’s creating the problem, with our social norms,” Agarwal said, “because then we have to be held responsible. Then we have to do something to change it.”

Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions by Pragya Agarwal is published by Canongate

[See also: Why do we still have a problem with “unlikeable” female characters?]

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