Dealing with sexism from unexpected sources

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?


16 thoughts on “Dealing with sexism from unexpected sources

  1. I agree with a lot of this post, although I would be hesitant about the title of “radical feminist,” particularly given the history of how radical feminists have isolated and attacked trans women. I don’t say this to mean someone who is both a feminist and a radical, but in the more structural sense of radical feminism (as opposed to liberal feminism, or eco feminism, or 3rd wave feminism, or trans feminism). There was a recent post in Bitch Magazine that discusses this relationship in more detail:

    • I put radical feminist in quotes because that’s what I and many women with strong opinions on gender equality get labeled, not because that’s where I fit in the grand scheme of feminist history. Honestly, I feel quite ignorant when it comes to defining feminisms and am still trying to find my place and figure out everything I believe. Thanks for bringing my attention to the history of the term radical feminist and the anti-trans nature of it. My feminism includes standing with trans women, not against them.

      • I’m super torn about this, too. In some ways, I see myself as a “radical” feminist inasmuch as I see patriarchy as the underlying mechanism for inequality– versus, say, liberal feminism, which envisions change primarily through, say, the exitisting legal system. But radical feminists have historically had an anti-trans problem, which is definitely worth calling attention to and criticizing. And then, of course, “radical feminist” has a colloquial meaning that’s completely based on straw feminism, not any philosophical standpoint. My feminism also includes support for trans women!

  2. Pingback: Dealing with sexism from unexpected sources | Gravity's Rainbow

  3. The imposter syndrome has gotten (a lot) worse as I’ve risen in ranks. That was surprising. And I think you’re right – it does represent internalization of the doubts the world has about you.

    More surprising has been the sexism from the younger generation. Grad students making sexist assumptions, remarks, giving outright sexist feedback in a personnel search. Undergrads calling me Mrs.. I somehow expected that people a generation younger than me grew up in a different world (and would embrace things that made the world better, more equal, protected them), but – things change so slowly, I guess.

  4. i highly relate to this post, thank you. when i open my reader i quickly go through the list of blogs i follow and check if anything is posted by tenureshewrote🙂

    i am a phd student who suffered a lot from imposter syndrome in the beginning of her phd. even now, although i published, i sometimes find myself thinking how my thesis committee won’t let me graduate because i know nothing of my work.

    when i first learned about the term ‘imposter syndrome’ i realised that i’m not messed up but the world is. This is the time i started thinking on topics like feminism and re-defining myself as a feminist.

    in the past, I received lots of judgement from my girlfriends based on patriarchal views of life. I am not keen on make up (although not entirely free from it) and i am criticised over not being girly. I am also judged about how i want to talk business instead of trying to be adorable for people around me. This is who i am, i want to talk about science, projects, academia, ‘serious stuff’ which are ‘not-girly’ in the eyes of my friends. and they tolerate males who would talk business. but not girls. This kind of behaviour from other females hurt more because these experiences create a defense mechanism and lead me away from future interactions with females.

    • i must mention they are phd student as well and they still think only men are entitled to have opinions about the world.

  5. I’m fascinated by the different experiences of the imposter syndrome and those that have experienced it linked to sexism. I am a long time (female) sufferer, but I feel no link whatsoever to sexism in my case. In fact, I generally feel like many many mentors have taken an unjustified (in my mind) chance on me, and had unending amount of faith in me. People’s expectations of me always seem higher than my own! I know it is much more common amongst women, though I know a lot of men who suffer (including my partner). I think TSW would be a great place for a post on coping strategies. Personally I’ve found the most useful strategy is having an ally (in my case my partner) who really understands the syndrome and can identify when I am unreasonably falling victim, then pep talk me out of it. On a related note, Amy Cuddy’s TED talk is well worth watching for those times you can’t get your brain to agree that you can make it!

  6. One of the most unexpected experiences of sexism I have had to date was as a grad student TA. (I am now a tenure-track professor.) I was TAing a lab for an intro physics course for an engineering program, and there were very few women in the class. It had been my hope that these few students would be happy to have a female TA for once, but that was not the case for all of them. Although I was the senior TA responsible for grading lab reports, some of the female students would purposely double check any instructions I gave them about their report with the junior (first year) male TA in the lab. Every week. If our directions/suggestions differed, as they did on occasion, they would follow his instructions, at times to the detriment of their grade because they had not completed work as outlined in the grading rubric I provided at the start of class. This ‘checking up’ on me hurt my feelings at first, but I wasn’t all that negatively affected by this in the end. I did find it a bit shocking that female students automatically assumed the man in the room would be the best source of information (as opposed to the woman who grades reports and provides them with a grading scheme at the start of each lab). Not terribly strategic on their part.

  7. Great point about imposter syndrome being a self-inflicted form of sexism. However I’m not sure I agree with the idea that “you must be pretty smart if you’ve fooled the smartest people around you”. In my experience of imposter syndrome, I DON’T think I’ve fooled the people around me! I’m sure they sometimes wonder what the hell I’m doing pursuing a PhD! Isn’t that awful?!

  8. I’ve recently started speaking on imposter syndrome in an attempt to try and quell my feelings that I don’t belong in my role and don’t deserve my successes. The more I’ve talked to people about it the more I’ve become convinced that both genders are impacted by it, but that women may choose to talk about the syndrome and how it impacts their lives more. If you do write more on imposter syndrome (or if you would like to have a short one to one chat about your experiences with it) I would love to hear more about the syndrome in academia as my sample set has been largely limited to the tech industry.

  9. I know this is not politically correct, but several times I have noticed that men from a variety of other cultural backgrounds do not take female authority seriously. (Yes, more than one culture, so I’m not pointing the finger at any one in particular). They either ignore instructions, or ask a male, even if that person is a junior or a technical staff member. This does happen at times with ‘anyone’ (as mentioned above for women in the physics class); but cultural expectations can be something to watch out for. If you anticipate it, maybe you can somehow work around it before it becomes a problem. This came to my attention once at a teaching development workshop which happened to be an all-female affair. Once it was mentioned, every one of the dozen or so people in the room realised she had come across this phenomenon. In one case, the problem of an uncooperative student in a lab class was only resolved with the intervention of the male Head of Department. This was not an ideal or sustainable solution, and it left a nasty taste in my mouth when it was described, but in that case the safety of others was being put in jeopardy because this student was not obeying instructions.

    I really have no overall suggestions about how to make sure this doesn’t happen, i guess it depends on personalities and the situation in which it occurs (large lab class or one-on-one supervision etc). Perhaps setting ground rules for expectations at the beginning and bringing cultural differences out into the open??????

  10. Thanks for writing this article; it’s nice to see other people who are willing to identify and call out their own internal biases. The pressure of competitive threat from fellow women colleagues can be a horrible thing to deal with, especially when it’s only a perceived threat by a colleague who is insecure in their position. One woman in particular at my last position had it out for me and took every opportunity to report to another woman manager that I was overstepping my roles/responsibilities. In these cases, I usually try to communicate how I value the skills of the people around me, abide by a strict chain of command and affirm that I am not after their job. After awhile, I decided that the institutional culture was reinforcing the behavior and left that environment to venture out on my own! Life’s too short for dealing with sexism drama–I’m so much happier now!

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