Why Are Smart Women Always Saying How Stupid They Are?

12 Sep

I’ve mentioned in passing that I have a new job. I am no longer graduate student! Instead, I’m a university employee in a softly IT position.

Go geek!

What this means, for the purpose of this blog entry, is that I am often working with self-proclaimed Luddites who are taking their first step into using any kind of computer technology in the classroom. This is definitely the norm.

It is a norm that is not gender or age based, as far as I can tell. Of course, those in the Sciences are generally more prone to using technology in their courses so I guess we could say it’s slightly academically skewed (?).

Anyhow, we’re going to take a moment to go into anecdotal mode to begin the real conversation I’m interested in:

I was working with a slightly younger faculty member who, while very intelligent, was more Ludditeย  than I had assumed. I made the mistake of throwing some terms around that I assumed she would know based on interactions with her husband.

Her immediate reaction, instead of asking for clarification, was to tell me that she wasn’t smart enough to understand what I was talking about.

I quickly reassured her that it was my fault for assuming her to have knowledge that I didn’t normally assume people to have but the comment stuck with me throughout my day.

The truth is, it bothered me because this is something I do all the time but it’s harder to contextualize the impact of saying these kinds of things until you see someone else, someone you respect, do it themselves. This faculty member was/is not stupid or less than in anyway for needing a little extra vocabulary lesson to get up and running with the technology I was teaching her about.

In fact, when I first started this job I was really frustrated that, at the end of the first week, I didn’t understand everything. I went home feeling like I was stupid. That was until Super-Fiance-Man informed me that I was, in fact, being too hard on myself.

So, why is it that some of the most intelligent women I know are so ready to be exactly this hard on themselves?

My immediate answer is: I don’t know.

I saw a reference to a quote once (and if anyone knows more about this PLEASE let me know) that said that our generation of feminist daughters was told that they could do anything they wanted and heard that they had to do everything.

I’m not saying that all women feel this way, or even that all smart women feel this way, but there’s a big chunk of us over-achievers that (somewhere down the line) seem to feel we have inherited the burden of all To-Do Lists in our generation. Not necessarily because we feel it’s our duty but because we feel we should be able to, right?

Alas, this has turned into another rambling post. But what I really want to say is this: you don’t need to know everything. When you’re an expert in your field (even if that is a creative field and sometimes deemed less intellectual), it’s okay not to be an expert in other fields.

The learning curve can be steep but you’ve climbed steeper before.


6 Responses to “Why Are Smart Women Always Saying How Stupid They Are?”

  1. Erin Hodges September 12, 2011 at 3:08 pm #

    It certainly seems to be a common occurrence. In fact, enough so that I parody it when people act like I surely must know something because if I didn’t that’d just mean I’m stupid. My act usually involves an overly sweet, exaggerated Southern accent saying something like, “Well, now, we know I’m just not real bright, so no, I didn’t know that.” (Which counts on the fact that the people I’m talking to don’t actually think I’m stupid.)

    I remember once reading somewhere that it’s a side effect of, for lack of a better term, minority treatment. Meaning that since every women’s behavior is representative of not only herself but also ALL women, when a little girl* fails at something she’s told she (and girls in general) just must not be very good at that. Where, evidently, little boys are taught how to try again. Add to that equation that to get to be an academic, you likely don’t have very much experience at failure on a formal level, and I think the reaction seems understandable, if unfortunate.

    Great thing to point out. ๐Ÿ™‚

    *Sorry for the seeming gender essentialist apologizing here. And for treating gender as though it’s binary. But since we’re talking about socialization and we’re socialized to believe that gender is binary, it seemed an accurate description of how things (unfortunately) work.

    • redshana September 12, 2011 at 4:57 pm #

      Erin, in this situation I understand treating gender as a binary because it’s not really you who is treating gender as binary but rather you are responding to a situation where societally/socially gender is often treated as a binary.

      I guess another underlying issue then is that minorities are expected to work harder, no matter what kind of minority we’re speaking of, to achieve the same/similar goals as the majority group. The question then being, should they (whoever they are) have to work harder?

      • Erin Hodges September 12, 2011 at 7:04 pm #

        Well, in this case it’s a “work harder to know everything so you don’t appear imperfect” because if you’re imperfect then every other [minority group person] is too. So it sort of all boils down to normalizing everyone’s experience so that someone (like the woman above) doesn’t feel like ze isn’t very smart for not knowing something that ze’d never come across before.

        imnsho ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. queenbess03 September 12, 2011 at 4:46 pm #

    Oh, how I needed to read this post! This weekend was filled with grading that was…less than desirable. I felt like a failure as a teacher. I feel like a failure as a student currently, because I am taking classes that are not within my literary field of expertise. It is an excellent reminder that I do not, indeed, have to know and do everything. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • redshana September 12, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

      See, that’s the thing! You are definitely super smart! I thinks it’s impossible to meet you and not see that! So yes, remind yourself, learning new things is a constant and does not reflect a deficiency! In fact, learning new things is part of being smart, right?

      You rock! ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. AliMali September 13, 2011 at 2:39 am #

    I totally think women do that because it makes us feel more humble because ‘smart’ is such a relative term, and can be so easily disproved. I never assume I’m smarter than anyone, because for me, “smart” is a relative term–and really has a lot to do with how knowledgeable you are on a particular topic. For example: I am “smart” about teaching, but I am not “smart” about many other things…I think that it’s easy to be okay being smart in a field you feel comfortable with…but it’s hard to think of yourself as a “smart” person in general, all the time. I think that, for me, I have a harder time saying that I’m “stupid” than I do saying that I’m smart. I HATE feeling stupid or behaving in a way that I think was dumb, and if you go around saying that you’re smart, and then you make a mistake, you feel/look even worse…so I’d rather not say anything at all and leave that judgment call up to others; I know when I feel smart, but I don’t go shouting it to the world. Does that make any sense? It’s like you avoid getting more mud on your face when you make a mistake…when you’re smart, people will take pleasure in proving that you’re not as smart as you thought you were; when you are “dumb,” people won’t try and fight that battle.

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