Women and Rhetoric(s) Getting a Bad Rap

I recently read the following article, which has been making the rounds on facebook. I found the article more than worthy of highlighting here, and not only because author Alexis Hancock has used the word Rhetoric in her title.

How The Rhetoric of Imposter Syndrome Is Used to Gaslight Women in Tech

The article, which focuses on imbalanced and unfair treatment of women and minorities in the tech industry, offers invaluable insight into the oppressive environments minorities and women also face in architecture. Hancock paints a picture I have unfortunately experienced first hand.

Hancock’s words, “with the cloud of imposter syndrome hovering over me, I convinced myself that I did not work hard enough to deserve a moment to relax,” painfully mimic my experience as an assistant professor of architecture. In my case, layers of oppression and assumptive prejudice were also marinated in a bitter, elitist cocktail that did not mix well with my state-school education and southern roots.

The article, while difficult for me to re-live, has helped me to focus on a more productive analysis of the external and institutional factors that push people (most often females and minorities) to physical, mental and/or emotional exhaustion. Identifying the “microaggressions, low pay, and other tactics as what they are: systematic oppression,” may help to establish new narratives, vocabularies and strategies to overcome such oppressions.

However, like Hancock and so many others, I reached a breaking point that altered my engagement with the situation I was in. I, too let go of the prevailing imposter narratives and “found a more sound hope in not blaming myself anymore.” Like Hancock, I grew to see my working environment as sick. I let go of caring to fix it, recognizing I had not caused the illness. Sadly, I don’t think this story is uncommon. It seems one can only objectively analyze situations like this from a distance, and after healing. Reflections and awareness may offer alternative outcomes to others.

There isn’t much more I can add to this truthful article regarding oppressive work places. One final insight comes to mind, however, which leads me back to Hancock’s use of Rhetoric in her title. It is very important to stress that rhetoric is not an inherently bad contortion of language. Yet, more often than not (outside of rhetorical scholarship) the term is used in the way Hancock has done so here, to suggest a negative manipulation of language. Understanding rhetoric more generatively may help us move forward more productively. Naming something can often provide strength and confidence for gracefully standing one’s ground, staying the course and not giving up power. This is something I am only now able to see in hindsight.

My favorite definition of rhetoric comes from Thomas Ferrel, by way of rhetoric scholar Jenny Rice in her book Distant Publics: Development Rhetoric and the subject of Crisis. Rice tells us that Ferrel defines rhetoric as “the fine and useful art of making things matter.” This is to say, rhetoric is a creative force! As with all powerful art forms, rhetoric requires analytical strategies, the development of a process, and most importantly a lot of practice.

The problem, or at least one of the problems, is that emphasis is not placed on critical and vital humanities disciplines such as rhetoric in either tech or architectural education. Such topics are covered in “general education” credit courses, which are vastly undervalued and under prioritized (at least in architectural education). I’d love to see architectural educators more aware of the lessons and curricula in English 101 or Intro to Ethics! If even a fraction of what is learned in those critical courses were reinforced within design studio (using parallel vocabularies between courses for the sake of the student), I believe we’d see a serious shift in the next generations of designers–women and men alike.

We can easily find tools to abstractly analyze the power dynamics and oppressive forms of communication occurring in our working environments. These lessons can be found within the study of rhetoric and communication. Finding time and energy to bridge the gap between someone who is already established in the tech or design industries, and a book like Rice’s Distant Publics (mentioned above), is unfortunately very daunting. For example, Rice’s book is written with future/other college professors in mind as an audience, rather than a web developer. Alexis Hancock would likely not have found solace in studying a scholarly book on rhetorical invention. Yet, I have hope that I will find the middle ground! I have an interest in striking a strategically targeted and tailored rhetorical chord for the design industry! Hancock has helped identify a pain point–one which I’m personally invested in–to direct my effort and years of research.


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