• November 6, 2014

Facial Expression

The expression in the photo accompanying this post will undoubtedly trigger a perceptual response — some recognition of one kind or another, among readers.

It will be perceived as a face by almost everyone. I would suggest that it will be perceived as the face of a young white woman by a large majority of readers. But will the expression be considered sad? Apprehensive? Hopeful? Disappointed?

The face is supposedly the very definition of a blank expression.

However you see this face, you see it through the filter of your experience. If you are a man, you will have different experience, dramatically different experience than if you are a woman. And our view can never be untangled from our views any more than we can distinguish what our eyes see versus what our brains interpret the eyes as having seen.

A recent gender discrimination complaint brought this enigma of perception and experience to my mind.

I do not doubt that Dr. Christina Frazier felt that her boss, Dr. Kent Erickson,  treated Dr. Frazier with disrespect and that she felt he did so in a particular way — in a way that might ring familiar to many women. I infer from the complaint’s allegations that Dr. Frazier felt patronized by her boss, demeaned by him, ridiculed by him, humiliated by him, and marginalized by him.

We do not have Dr. Erickson’s response but I suggest that it is plausible, if not probable, that Dr. Erickson will respond that he, in fact, did not think highly of Dr. Frazier and that he took steps to demote Dr. Frazier not based on her gender, but based on other qualities that he saw, qualities on which it would be fair and appropriate to judge subordinate workers.

And here, then, is the deep and dark mystery. The two realities may coexist and conflict. Absent some dramatic evidence (of blatant sexism, on the one hand, or employee incompetence on the other hand), extracting which reality a jury will adopt might be nearly impossible to predict.

In short, there is job security for lawyers and others who deal with employment disputes.

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