I’m baaaack. Having been ill for a month, and finally feeling healthy, and mostly caught up…AND the semester nearing its end, I find myself with a topic flitting about in my head. It’s been there for a while, and I’ve been trying to decide whether to talk about it. Well, if you know me, you know the answer is almost always, “Yes.”
A grad school classmate of mine, and a superstar “girl scientist” (I will use that phrase ironically if I want, so there), Karen James, coined the Twitter hashtag #ripplesofdoubt a few months back. It was intended to be a way to curate the feelings and perceptions of women in science as relates to the myriad of ways women are made to feel…less than men. “Girl scientists,” for example. Over the weeks, it got somewhat hijacked by the usual Twitter Trolls, but, still, the point was made. The point continues to be made – every week I read at least a couple of posts by women who are fighting odds that are steeper than they should be, or who doubt themselves because of a lifetime of negative reinforcement.
Here’s the thing: I usually react to those posts with empathy, but not as much…I guess, recognition…as you might expect. I don’t routinely feel doubtful of myself, nor have I experienced a lot of obvious OR subtle negative reinforcement. But the constant barrage of posts makes me realize – I’m lucky.
Before I go on, let me stop here and say: it’s not that I don’t have doubts about my ability. I do, from time to time. I know what Impostor Syndrome is like. But it’s different. I don’t have Doubts About Myself.
Oh, one more thing: this post is going to be a bit of a thought-dump, rather than something well-conceived and orderly. Just so you know.
So, this morning, feeling all not-sick, kids were incredibly well-behaved, I got to work on time and was enjoying Getting Shit Done, including some actual science…I was feeling like Dr. Awesome. Then I read a few tweets that got me thinking about #ripplesofdoubt again, and started wondering: why is it different, for me? I have nothing to post on that hashtag, but women I know who are awesome, who I think are so much smarter than me (not doubt; I’m very good at recognizing smart when I see it), nonetheless have this feeling. What is up with THAT? I mean, Karen? She is a scientist, a near-astronaut, an athlete, great at science outreach, famous on the Twitters – she should never have ANY doubts for more than a few seconds. What the hell?
So. Why is it different for me?
Some of it is luck. Pure and simple – to my knowledge, no one has ever tried to make me feel bad because I’m a woman in science. If they did, I totally missed it. Sorry.
But that obliviousness is probably part of the phenotype I’m thinking about here. I don’t notice a lot of this stuff, maybe. And when I do…it doesn’t cause me to doubt myself. It pisses me off and makes me more likely to do well, just to spite the person who pissed me off.
It undoubtedly starts with my parents. I wasn’t raised to be a girl (or a boy). I was a girl, sure, but that was just another part of me, like my eye color. It was a non-issue, and not something to call regular attention to. There were not things I was “supposed” to do because I was a girl, nor were there things I was “supposed” to be bad at (math?) because I was a girl. The only thing I ever noticed about my academics from my parents was a sort of mild bewilderment that I had turned out to be so into school. (She LIKES school. Well, that’s cool.) They clearly thought it was awesome, and whatever I used my brain for was cool by them.
I remember no incidents where either parent told me “X is for boys” or “Y is for girls”. Certainly nobody EVER said, “You can’t do that because you’re a girl.” So, by the time anyone did get around to trying to tell me something like, “Women aren’t good at math,” or similar…it just pissed me off. Why would you SAY something so patently ridiculous and hurtful, you ass?
Without directly saying so, my parents raised me (and my sister) to believe that our decisions were generally going to be the right ones. This has contributed to my success in life…I tend to make a decision, and then it’s done. Unless it makes me miserable, I don’t look back. I don’t ask “what if”. I don’t second-guess myself. I don’t doubt myself. Much.
The ways in which this might matter are widespread. For example: changing your initial answer on a multiple-choice test far more often leads to an incorrect answer than a correct answer. ESPECIALLY, as it turns out, if you are female. I can honestly say that I’ve never changed an answer once it was bubbled in. Never. I advise my students to do the same: unless you are SURE your answer was wrong, leave it. Don’t sit to the end of the exam second-guessing yourself. Answer the question and move on.
There are other examples. “Gaslighting” doesn’t work well when the person you’re trying to do it to is stubbornly averse to second-guessing and doubt. No man has ever tried for more than a minute to make me think I’m crazy when I’m upset. Because it just makes me angry. I was raised to believe my feelings are real, AND that they are relevant. Even if I am temporarily crazy, you owe it to me to let me be crazy until I feel better. It will pass, but I’m worth the tolerance. (I do, generally, admit to having been crazy for a minute there. Ask my husband.)
I generally have the confidence to take on tasks at work that are technically beyond my level of expertise…I assume I’ll figure it out, or, worst-case-scenario, figure out how to fake it enough to get by. I don’t wind up having to do the latter a lot. When something does crash and burn, I’m bummed…but I don’t think it means I’m a terrible scientist. Or teacher. I know I’m good at those things, and setbacks are just setbacks.
At any rate, I think it’s different for the lucky ones, like me, because we lucked into parents who knew how to raise girls without allowing them to feel “less” than boys. For whom the very IDEA that a girl would be “less” than a boy was alien – it never came up, and I can only assume it was prevented from diffusing in from outside, as well. The lucky ones were raised to be intolerable, bossy, opinionated…that is to say, confident and sure of ourselves (even sometimes when it isn’t warranted). We were raised as women, and we know women are different – but different, not “less than”.
I guess…for a start, raise your daughters to be ANGRY when someone mistreats them. Hurt is fine, and normal, but angry is how you protect yourself from damage.
Maybe more later. I want to see what the reactions to this are, first.