Updated: Jun 10, 2019
A different way to think about the female experience in America.
As soon as I walked through the glass doors I was greeted by three men in dress shirts and slacks, one after another shaking my hand. I was in a realty firm, a unique location for a business book club. The guy leading the meeting struck up a conversation with me and we talked about my work, his work, and the schooling system.
I learned about the people who surrounded me, and I felt like I could connect with them; they too were people interested in business with growth mindsets, always looking to improve themselves.
Finding my way to a seat, while sipping on some red wine, another guy made his way out to the foyer and introduced himself with a smile on his face.
While cognizant of the fact that I was the only woman among four men at this meeting, I didn’t think much of it. It shouldn’t affect how I present myself nor should it affect my ability to contribute to the discussion.
After some witty banter, the true discussion began. We were discussing Start With Why by Simon Sinek, a business book explaining how your “why” is the key to unlocking unlimited success in business and in life. I had read the book a year ago and was excited to be around others who had encountered Sinek’s philosophies as well.
It wasn’t until midway through the conversation that a sudden thought jolted me.
I’m a 22-year-old woman discussing business with experienced male realty brokers, shouldn’t I be intimidated?
Then I thought, haha wtf Maeve, hell no, you're fine.
Every women’s empowerment material I’ve encountered would have told me I’m likely to feel intimidated. They say that we, as women, are undermined by men and need to fight back.
But what if women aren’t actually insecure until they hear that there’s something to be afraid of?
When I was studying bioinformatics in college, a science and technology major, I took my first computer science classes. I loved these courses, they helped me get my first C. Finally I was being challenged academically to the point where earning an A wasn’t a guarantee. I was excited to go to class everyday, sit in the front row, take notes, and do my best.
I thought nothing of the fact that my instructor was a man and that 75% of my classmates were guys until others brought it to my attention. When I would tell people what I studied, I would receive a shocked face followed by an impressed compliment. My female friends categorized me as a “woman in STEM” and praised the ground I walked on.
Woah, bioinformatics? You must be so smart.
Aren’t those classes so hard? Good for you for even being in them.
Aren’t those classes all guys? Do you feel intimidated? I could never do that.
You’re a woman in STEM, wow you’re inspiring, fuck gender norms.
These seemingly supportive comments made me start to question how I showed up in my classes everyday. Was what I was doing really that out of the ordinary? Is there something they knew that I didn’t? Was there something I needed to fear?
People shoved this idea that I needed to feel insecure down my throat. They wanted me to fit their stereotype of a heroic modern feminist who was fighting the patriarchy by exceeding in my computer science classes.
In reality, I had my head down, and was learning what I wanted to learn; I could care less about how many people of my gender there were sitting in the chairs next to me. The guys weren’t sexist, they were minding their own business and doing their work, just like me.
Somehow this story, of equality, wasn’t satisfying enough for the people I interacted with. You’d think they would have been happy to hear that the men and women in my class worked together in harmony. Instead, they would respond with a blank, unsatisfied stare.
The more I experienced these reactions, the more I accepted that it was okay for me to feel intimidated. I lowered my own bar, because I was a woman in STEM after all, and that in itself is an achievement. I focused more on what my classmates were doing than on my own learning. I started feeling more insecure and questioned every question I asked. I now felt like I had something to be afraid of. “Fear the patriarchy!” cried my modern feminist classmates. . . so I did.
Why does it have to be common place that women feel intimidated in a group of men, especially in the workplace or in school? It can’t be because all men are monsters, because that’s simply not true. There are monstrous individuals, not genders. While America’s past of a primarily male run society has had ripple effects on what we expect of both men and women, it’s not what’s holding women back now. Since women have gotten the right to vote and to participate in the workforce, I truly believe that currently, the way we coddle and celebrate women is doing the most harm.
What if the overflow of women-themed everything is actually counterproductive? Why are we separating women, and parading their achievements like it’s some miracle that they’ve achieved the same thing a man has? Isn’t the whole idea to be equal?
What if girls are naturally bold, and know they are just as competent as their male counterparts, until society tells them like a broken record that they “can do anything a boy can.”
Yeah, duh, she’ll think the first time she hears that. After the fourth, fifth, and then sixth time she hears that statement, she’ll start to consider why she’s being told it in the first place.
If I can do anything a boy can, why do you keep reminding me? Am I inferior in some way? Are you overcompensating in coaching me because I was born less capable?
Let’s stop scaring young girls by preparing them for a reality of the past. If they repeatedly hear the story that men are out to get them, they begin to dim their shine to protect themselves. We can help young girls focus on being the best them and then deal with sexism on an individual basis.
Back in the realty firm, intently listening to someone share their response to the book on hand, I thought to myself,
Why would there be any need to be intimidated? I have felt so in my element since I got here, there’s nothing to fear.
Oh yeah, the only reason I’m thinking that is because other women would say that in this situation, I should feel uncomfortable. But I don’t, and that’s okay, don’t overthink it.
The guys I was surrounded by were happy to hear what I had to say, and if I was too scared to share my opinions, then that would be my fault. Of course there are situations where men do undermine women, that is definitely a reality. In America, there are misogynist individuals, not an entire misogynist gender.
Stop telling me that just because I’m a woman, it’s expected that I feel intimidated. I don’t need to feed into your narrative. I don’t need to feel victimized by men and then rise up to fight the patriarchy. I can just be the best me and do my best work.
Maybe if we all focused a little more on our personal progress and positive contributions to society, we’d have less time to tell women how to feel. Let’s stop warning young women about how evil men are, that’s sexist afterall.