The Lonely Crowd and validation
One of my recent interviewees, Margaret, told me how she had just gone for a job interview at a prestigious university. At the end of the interview she had effectively withdrawn her candidature, in spite of all the advantages and status that the job offered. She felt intuitively that it would not have allowed her to maintain her identity, or authenticity as a researcher. Yet the process had been an encouraging one for her, because she felt that it had validated her competences. I don’t think this was just because she had come close to getting the job. It was also because it had helped her clarify what she felt she is good at, and what she wants to do.
Many of us will recognise the way putting together a job application can have this effect. But her comment, and the general line of our conversation, took me back to David Riesman’s famous work on the orientations of middle-class Americans, The Lonely Crowd, published in the 1950s. Riesman’s well-known distinction was between inner-directed and outer-directed people. The former shaped their lives by reference to their own values, paying relatively little attention to the views of others. Riesman argued that in the mid-20th century an increasingly materialist and status-concerned society meant that more people were influenced by the views and attitudes of others, so that their choices were shaped by how they felt they appeared to the outside world.
There’s a strong link here to the PP. One reason why women volunteer more for training than men is that they want not just to boost their competences, but to be able to point to the fact that they have done this, and not leave it to the foibles of managers. External formal validation is something they have to have more regard for. On the other hand, my guess is that women will, like Margaret, pay attention to other, more informal, ways in which they feel that their competences and professional identities are ‘validated’. That’s just an impression, and of course I have to enter the usual caveat about these being gender generalisations. But I’ve also been told several times that women are more focussed on the intrinsic aspects of work, on getting a job done, and are less likely to do something just because it promotes their career. So there’s an interesting and rather complex set of relationships here: do women and men differ in their overall inner- and outer-directedness? as a specific aspect of this, do they differ in how far they use external authority to define their competences? and if so, how do these match with their own perceptions?
Beyond the differences, there’s the broader questions of how well we reckon we do, as a society, in recognising and validating competence; and in encouraging people to have confidence in what they can do, and to choose for themselves what they want to do.