smart women
May 4, 2003 05:00 PM

Alison's WHB question this week is about self-doubt - specifically the doubt a woman might feel about her capability and her competence. This one touches somewhat on my personal experience.

A preface to all this: doubt isn't a condition of gender, but there are certainly aspects of self-doubt and its expression which may be gendered. All the men and women I know have episodes of self doubt; I think that's a key component of intelligence and self-awareness.

One side effect of being a "good girl" in school (meaning mostly that I got good grades, as I was both a punk and a very clever kid) was coming to associate others' approval with achievement and talent. There is, still an infinitesimal part of me that believes I am competent only when others validate my competence.

When it comes to intelligence, though, I am mostly arrogant. Most of the time I think, and have always thought, that I am inherently brilliant.

The problem is that this ought to be backed up by me always being astounding at anything I do. And I'm not. This is where I think my response is somewhat gendered - rather than thinking okay, so I'm not the greatest ever at this, I tend to interpret less-than-brilliance as failure.

My experience is that this is not uncommon for women (smart women, as I really don't know many non-smart ones), while men (again, smart ones - not much with the stupid people around here) take a more practical approach to minor failings, appreciating them as minor rather than symbols of a greater personal ineffectiveness. I generally don't see men acting ready to give up over a temporary set back or misunderstanding, but I saw my women friends do that all the time in college - flip out because they didn't grasp a concept, or failed an exam or something. I did it myself. I don't know if it was the emotionality of my friends, or if women are somehow schooled to worry more about our own competence.

And yet - the majority of those same women went on to do impressive things and be generally smart and fabulous, so it's clear that whatever we might have doubted in ourselves as kids was - or at least would be - very much there.

As for diminishing one's own intelligence by playing it down (one of the side questions Alison asked) - I'm happy to say I've never done that. It never seems to be needed at work, would have competed with my need for accomplishment at school, and just seems so foolish. I think I knew girls who did this in middle school/high school, but it's also possible that they weren't just acting. This may be a benefit of my own geekiness or my generation, but I never even felt pressured to act anything less than as intelligent as I am/was.

So, part 2 - the grounding around saying "all smart women feel like frauds". I think academics have a very specific perspective on this that doesn't necessarily equate to the rest of the world. For that matter, there isn't a single "academic" perspective. It seems to me (as an outside-academia viewer) that there's an implicit assumption that women aren't as effective as researchers, philosophers, etc by many academics. This idea that we're good teachers but not so good at "serious debate" (not unlike last week's WHB discussion brought up); there seems to be a lot of that in the ivory tower.

And again, I don't think that's as true in a business environment today (this is, of course, a business world sanitized by sensitivity training, diversity awareness, sex discrimination changes, etc. - I'm pretty sure this world was much different 20 years ago). Leaving academia also means leaving the notion of grading to a great extent.

End result of all this - well, I can see a professor saying something as stupid as "all smart women feel like impostors", because it doesn't seem like women and men are assumed equally competent from an academic standpoint. It goes back to that notion of academic speech or normal, appropriate debate as belonging to a "male" communication style. So women who achieve that are obviously stepping outside their natural limitations, their inclination towards nurturing. Bollocks to that. And yet I see how you might feel like a fake if you were a) a clever woman who was doing well in a gender-divided environment based on "male" standards and b) a subscriber to such ideas as "male" and "female" standards and debate styles.

I still contend that self-doubt is part of self-awareness and feeling no doubt makes you inhuman and probably slightly stupid. A healthy ability to question oneself is part of an intelligent life.

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