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Diversity and Inclusion

Clash of independence and interdependence creates conflict, fuels gender inequality

Which motto most closely reflects your behavior during group discussions? 

(a) The squeaky wheel gets the grease 

(b) The duck that quacks the loudest gets shot 

Your answer may depend on your background and upbringing.  If you were discouraged from standing out, or taught to be interdependent, the “quacking duck” philosophy may resonate with you. In contrast, if speaking up and standing out come easily, you may be independent and more of a “squeaky wheel.”  

Hazel Rose Markus, a psychology professor at Stanford, noticed these variations in class discussion among her students. In a recent talk at the Clayman Institute, Markus elaborated on her findings. She speculated that these differences might related to region of origin, race, class, and gender, which led her to research people’s  different cultural understandings of how to behave and interact.

In a book co-authored with cultural scientist Alana Conner, Clash! 8 Cultural Conflicts that Make us Who We Are, Markus argues that the theory of independent and interdependent selves not only explains why class discussion participation varies so widely, but also may offer insight into the persistence of gender inequality.

The independent and interdependent selves

In Markus’s typology of independent and interdependent selves, the “independent” self values being unique, making a contribution, being heard, and influencing others. In contrast, the “interdependent” self emphasizes relationships, similarities to others, adjusting to others and fitting in with one’s social surroundings. 

Evidence of such difference is found in everyday interactions. Those with interdependent approaches are more likely to be conscious of others and their relationships and to adjust their behavior to accommodate others. In contrast, independent people are more focused on themselves and on influencing others.

Though everyone has and needs both an independent and interdependent self, Markus and Conner find that our mix of cultural contexts, such as region of the world, race, class, and gender, influences which of the two selves is  mostly likely to guide our behavior.

Race, class, and gender in the independent and interdependent self

How do we become independent or interdependent? According to Markus, our many intersecting culture cycles—cycles of ideas, institutions, interactions—shape our individual thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Research has shown, for example, that women are encouraged to be communal, caring, and concerned for others, which are all interdependent characteristics. As a result, women are likely to develop a well-elaborated interdependent self. On the other hand, men learn from a young age to be dominant and outspoken and are likely to have a well-elaborated independent self that they use as  a default self. Boys and girls learn how to behave by observing their family members, teachers, peers, and the media. Gender socialization does not end with childhood—adults are also constantly reminded in all their daily interactions, both formal and informal, of socially-acceptable gendered behavior.

Other significant cultural categories also contribute to the formation of our selves.. Markus found that those who are white and middle class generally have an independent orientation, while people of color and working class individuals are more likely to be interdependent. In other words, privilege and independence go hand in hand, while less privileged groups tend to be interdependent.

As a consequence, people with divergent orientations may react differently to the same social scenario. For example, Markus and Conner found that independently-oriented MBA students with class privilege were offended when a friend purchased the exact same car they had just bought. It meant they were not unique or special. By contrast, working-class, interdependent firefighters were not at all bothered when a friend purchased the same car. Instead, they found that owning the same car was an act of solidarity, or thought they could start a car club together.

Conflicts occur when people using their independent selves comes in contact with people using their interdependent selves—but understanding our two selves and how they shape our thoughts, feelings, and actions can calm the clashes.

Gender Inequality Correlated With Independent and Interdependent Selves

The theory of independence and interdependence, argues Markus, helps explain the persistence of gender inequality. Although women earn more advanced degrees than men, hold more professional positions than men, and own or half-own 47% of U.S. firms, men continue to make more money and have more power and influence in nearly all sectors of U.S. society.

Markus suggests that the clash between independence and interdependence contributes to this gap. The qualities that translate to workplace success are more likely to fall into the category of independent: being self-directed, self-promoting, and standing out from the crowd. Because men are socialized to be independent, and most mainstream societal institutions reflect  and foster independence, they are likely to find their way to greater success.

If this is so, can’t women just strive to be more independent? Markus argues that it is not so simple. For one, women experience significant social penalties if they act independently. For example, a woman may be judged “aggressive” or “cold” if she acts independently. A man acting in a similar fashion is unlikely to face the same reaction, because he is valued for his independence. This dynamic is one reason that the gender difference in selves persists.

Understanding Different Selves Leads to Change

According to Markus and Conner, being aware of the significance of independence and interdependence and how it shapes our lives may lessen skirmishes between the two categories of people.

If, for example, you have an argument with a friend, consider that you and your friend may be operating with different selves—your friend may  have her independent self activated while you may have your interdependent self activated. Do not assume that a fundamental personality difference is driving the conflict, Markus suggests. Instead, consider the differences between those driven by their independent and interdependent selves. Once you recognize that, perhaps you can meet in the middle, by summoning your opposite self.

Clash! concludes with recommendations for nurturing your independent or interdependent selves. If you are hoping to become more independent, Markus and Conner recommend you remember that stating your opinion doesn’t mean you are selfish, or that you try assuming you have as much authority as others. On the other hand, if you are trying to become more interdependent, they advise considering how you are similar to others, or how each action of your actions affects others.

“Meeting in the middle,” as Markus and Conner call it, can also potentially bridge the gender divide. Although it could benefit women to become more independent, Markus argues that because men hold most power in our society, it is their responsibility to become more interdependent. When men operate with their interdependent selves, they can help “break glass ceilings,” says Markus.