Cross-posted on genfem.com
My college boyfriend and I were in the same economics statistics class. Our entire grade consisted of the midterm and the final. The day we got the midterm back I was sure that I had failed it. I was a wreck. There was no way I was going to be able to pass the class with the final alone. When I asked my boyfriend how he thought he did, he said he thought he had done fine. He was relaxed. He rubbed my back and told me I’d be okay. When we got the test back we had gotten the same grade.
I learned something about men that day. Perhaps they have a greater sense of denial, but they’re also less likely to go to the place of self-doubt and insecurity where we women feel so comfortable.
Clay Shirky recently wrote a blog entry called “A Rant About Women” in which he argues that women don’t act enough like self-aggrandizing jerks. Much of what he says is true. It is not difficult to imagine how differently my college boyfriend and I would have interviewed for the same job that year. He would have emphasized his skills (whether or not they actually existed), I would have toned mine down. He would have gotten the job and I would have gotten a “We’ll let you know.”
But Shirky fails to see that gender-based behavioral differences are something that men and women learn. Shirky mentions that “we live in a world where women are discriminated against,” and that’s as far as he takes it. Shirky isn’t a women so he doesn’t know what it’s like to live in a world where the male pronoun is the default pronoun, where ads for household cleaning products always feature women (because it’s not like men are gonna scrub the toilets) and ads for financial services always feature a man’s authoritative voice (because finances are a serious matter).
Shirky also doesn’t know women’s individual stories. That, for example, one of the teachers at my private New York City high school told me I’d never be an “A” student. That another told a group of boys that I was “stacked.” Can you imagine if one of Shirky’s female teachers told a group of girls in his class that he had a “nice package”? And Shirky so internalizing the messages around him of men as sex objects that the comment didn’t even seem out of line??
Sexism, subtle and profound, doesn’t end in high school, of course. One of my extended family members is a powerful attorney in his field. He often and loudly says things like, “The most important thing for a man is his career. The most important thing for a woman is her looks.” When this is the attitude of the head partner at a major law firm (and I would imagine at a lot of major law firms, investment banks, movie studios and other boys’ clubs), I have to wonder if the problem can be simplified to women not raising their hands enough, as Shirky implies.
When I got an A in a an “Economics of Less Developed Countries” class at Georgetown and my female professor told me she thought I should pursue a Masters in Economics, I laughed. When she tried to convince me I was good at it, I assured her that I wasn’t. I was realistic. I was unassuming. I had learned my limitations early on.
I’ve been trying to unlearn them ever since.