A while ago, one of our readers asked us to write a bit about dealing with sexism from unexpected sources. I’m going to discuss two sources of sexism I found unexpected in my own life, imposter syndrome and sexism from other women. This is a topic that would benefit greatly from your stories, so please add your own in the comments.
I’m currently reading The Hidden Brain, which is about how much of what we do isn’t as nicely thought out as we’d like it to be. The author includes a particularly nice metaphor that describes how privilege works (excerpted by Maria Popova over at Brain Pickings). The author, an average swimmer, is having a lovely swim in the ocean and is feeling great. He pushes out further and further, but when he turns to go back, he realizes he’s been riding a current and now has to struggle for every inch to return. On the swim out, he was congratulating himself on his improved technique, enjoying his prowess. He never stopped to consider the external circumstances that might be affecting him.
Most of us — men and women — will never consciously experience the undercurrent of sexism that runs through our world. Those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers; those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine.
The most unexpected source of sexism in my own life has been imposter syndrome. The older I’ve gotten, the more sexism I’ve experienced, the less confident I’ve become. This doesn’t make sense because I’ve actually accomplished quite a lot. But when I succeed, I blame luck. When I fail, I blame myself. This is a kind of internalized sexism.
People who fight the current all their lives also regularly arrive at false explanations for outcomes. When they fall behind, they blame themselves, their lack of talent. Just as there are always plausible explanations for why some people succeed, there are always plausible explanations for why others do not. You can always attribute failure to some lack of perseverance, foresight, or skill.
The most effective way I’ve found to fight imposter syndrome is to truly listen to your friends and mentors. With imposter syndrome, it’s easy to believe that you’ve fooled them somehow, but to believe that, you’ve got to believe that the smartest people you know are dumb enough to be fooled by you, which makes you pretty clever – or wrong about fooling them in the first place.
Imposter syndrome is a huge issue in science for men and women and deserves a whole post of its own. Hopefully someone else on the TSW team will take it up soon. I want to move on now to another source of unexpected sexism.
“I can’t stand female poets,” I said loudly, “because they constantly write about women’s issues instead of normal things.”
My words hung heavy in the air. [The Professor] blinked and moved on, and I slowly realized I’d said something strange.
Worse, though, was the way a classmate in front of me whirled in her seat. She fixed me with a glare, startled and shocked and fire and ice all at the same time.
Until that instant we had been friendly acquaintances. I think she’d assumed we were kindred. I wore my hair short, just as she did. We were both flat-chested, bony, utterly androgynous. And also I’d always been kind of a brat. So I think she had me mistaken for a fellow feminist. I was not.
Perhaps the most painful source of unexpected sexism comes from other women. Every time I put on a skirt for work, I flash back to the grimace a professor in my department made when she described the pencil skirts another student wore. Because other women share our experiences to some degree, we expect them to be allies. But patriarchy is an ugly structure that we’re all a part of.
Women are victims of sexism, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also perpetuate it. Research shows that women are just as likely as men to discriminate against women when it comes to things like choosing who to mentor or to hire for a lab manager (but see this before you say women are just as sexist as men).
When we discover feminism and start to break out of modes of patriarchal thinking, we tend to see other women as natural allies, expecting people with similar experiences to see things from our perspective. They should be familiar with swimming against the current. That’s what makes it so painful when women say or do sexist things, like expecting female students to be more hard-working or self-sacrificing or shaming female colleagues for their reproductive choices. Sometimes you may choose to let it go, but sometimes you have the opportunity or the responsibility to do something about it.
In my experience, other women are more likely to respond well to a conversation about sexism than men are. So go ahead and feel more confident than you have going into the thousands of conversations that turned out like this. When you have to have these conversations, do not accuse the woman of being a sexist. Talk about how the thing she said or did was sexist. Let your default assumption be that she would like the world to be a less sexist place and for whatever reason has screwed up. You don’t even always have to be blunt about it.
A professor I knew once regularly down-talked femininity in a way that made me feel quite bad and insecure. Then one day I started all but quoting the great Dr. Isis on how a fantastic pair of shoes doesn’t impair my ability to do great science and isn’t it a shame how some people equate femininity with incompetence? The professor thoughtfully agreed with me and we’ve since had several lovely conversations on how appearance and the creation of our appearance influence our standing as scientists. It turns out that this professor was painfully aware of the ways appearing feminine changed what people thought of her and took pains to avoid being associated with femininity – thus her comments. When I voiced my concerns, she became defensive of me. She didn’t want me to have to take the route she did to “make it” it in a men’s field.
Not all conversations will be so pleasant or easy. Some will be more about drawing boundaries and may end with you firmly in your colleague’s radical feminist category box. That’s not the worst box to end up in [edit: but see this comment for a discussion of the term]. I’ve found people are pretty curious about “radical feminists” and you end up having a lot of great lunch conversations once you get that label. It also helps you build relationships with people who are struggling with sexism and don’t have anyone to talk to about it.
The polite conversation may not be the right approach depending on the consequences of the sexist behavior, especially when there are other power dynamics at play or the weight of institutions is involved. If your grant proposals aren’t getting funded, you’re missing out on awards, you’re not getting promoted, a little conversation like this is not an answer. But for minor interpersonal sexism, it’s been a satisfying route for me.
What are your experiences with sexism from unexpected sources? How did you deal with it? Do you feel like sexism is tied to your experience of imposter syndrome?