Embodying Emotion, Performing Gender

Nicole Noll, left, at a Web Start Women class. Photo courtesy of Littlest Finch on Flickr Creative Commons
Nicole Noll, left, at a Web Start Women class. Photo courtesy of Littlest Finch on Flickr Creative Commons

By XiaoZhi Lim
BU News Service

“Take your pen, do this.” Nicole Noll said as she reached into her backpack for a pen, and placed it horizontally between her teeth. “Don’t let your lips touch it.”

I did as she demonstrated. Noll and I were in the Harvard Science Center, sitting in the first-floor hallway. As we held our pens in our teeth, two men passed by and gave us puzzled looks.

“OK. Now,” Noll took her pen out and stuck one end in her mouth. I followed, letting my lips wrap around and grip my pen.

“So when you hold it like this,” Noll placed her pen horizontally in between her teeth again, “what are you doing, essentially?”

“You, you’re almost like smiling,” I ventured.

“You’re almost like smiling, right!” Noll went on to explain how people, who were asked to rate how funny a set of cartoons was, gave higher ratings when they held a pen in their teeth and lower ratings when they held a pen in their lips – more like a pout – in a 1988 study. “What this research says is, I can change what I’m doing with my body and it will influence my internal feelings.”

Noll, a post-doctoral fellow in social psychology at Harvard University, researches such “embodied emotion” with a specific interest in gender-linked behavior. “One of the very common findings in this type of research is that men take up more space,” said Noll. On the other hand, women tend to have more “closed posture,” which is generally associated with submission and a lack of confidence. In 2011, while trying to start a business, Noll observed that some of her research findings in gender-linked behavior affected women’s work skills, even in something like coding for the web. To address that, Noll co-founded a company, Web Start Women, that provides coding classes specifically for women.

Noll’s interests in psychology began with how situations and physical movements shape human behavior. While she focused largely on how arm movements can influence mental states during her doctoral work at Temple University, her research gravitated towards gender studies after  she met Margaret Thomas at a social psychology conference five years ago. Thomas, now an assistant professor in social psychology at Earlham College, researches gender behaviors and how individuals perceive and perform gender. Thomas and Noll share a common interest in women’s studies. According to University of California, Berkeley philosopher Judith Butler, gender is a performance that men and women learn rather than inherit. “It’s something that we do, in the way we dress, in the way we act,” said Noll. By studying men and women in commonly-held postures, Noll and Thomas are trying to collect data for Butler’s theory.

Through a long-distance collaboration, Noll and Thomas designed a set of four studies to collect data on how people’s feelings of masculinity or femininity changed after they either read descriptions, saw drawings or photographs of people in, or held postures that were masculine, feminine or neutral.  For example, participants who sat with one leg folded under the other felt more feminine while those who stood up with legs apart and hands in their pockets felt more masculine. Surprisingly, when participants held ‘neutral’ category postures, such as simply sitting upright with legs slightly apart, they ended up feeling more masculine. This suggested that even postures that are commonly perceived to be gender-neutral are in fact masculine ones, a likely product of modern society’s androcentricity.

Being a dancer and a runner, Noll carries herself with a tall, straight back and open shoulders. As she walked with me to her Web Start Women introductory coding class, I realized that I had remembered her to be taller than she really is. In a conference room on the 13th floor at the Cambridge Innovation Center, Noll, ten women sat around a long table with laptops.

Almost every business in today’s internet society has, or would benefit from having a website. When Noll considered starting her own business in 2011, she met with other women who had their own businesses, but realized that they did not have a website, or did not have control of their websites. According to Boston University’s chair of computer science, Mark Crovella, a gender gap in coding and computer science exists because “girls get messages early on” that the field is not interesting, desirable or appropriate. Noll learned about the gender gap through a close friend, Susan Buck, a programmer and instructor at the Harvard Extension School and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Together, Noll and Buck identified a need for women to learn how to code within a welcoming learning environment in which they felt comfortable and founded Web Start Women.

In class, Noll strives to make sure that everyone has fully understood the material that she just covered before moving on to the next section. In a typical male-dominated coding class, the atmosphere tends to be competitive. Buck recalls times in her high school computer science club where she would be working on taking a computer apart but the boys in the club would take it from  her. “Here, let me do it,” they would say. In Web Start Women classes, Buck and Noll try to create a “no-stupid-question environment” to support  women who get overwhelmed or  frustrated. “They want me to be there, they want me to do well,” Phoebe Sinclair, a student in Noll’s class told me. “The confidence you get from being in that environment is significant.”

Growing up on a farm in central Pennsylvania, Noll recalls her mother telling her that she should never “let someone tell you, you can’t do something because you’re a girl,” but would also refuse to let Noll throw hay bales, because that was not girls’ work. Noll believes that our posture and behavior gets “corrected” in certain ways – that girls should keep their legs crossed while sitting and boys should pick themselves right up after a fall – and that these corrections influence the way we think of ourselves and what we believe we are capable of doing. Following Web Start Women’s success, Noll hopes that more classes like this will be available to all children before they get “corrected.”