A personal tale of stereotype threat
One of our collection managers was showing me how to use the digital camera. We’re not talking a point-and-click here; this was some sort of Nikon, with a herd, maybe even a plethora, of lenses; this was shades and remote flashes set up in the photography room for the purpose of documenting specimens.
I’d been shown how to use the setup a few years previously, but since I hadn’t used it in the intervening time, my memory of the appropriate settings and icons had faded somewhat, and I’d asked Dave to take me through the basics again. He kindly found time to do so.
I felt guilty, since the collection managers are always busy, and I dislike interrupting people, especially very busy people. So I babbled. Like an idiot.
“Sorry about this,” I babbled, “I’m just really stupid with cameras.”
Dave just smiled and shook his head, and after he’d left the room I stared at my tray of specimens and I had a moment. A capitalised Moment. A goddamn epiphany.
What. The. Fuck. Kate. I snapped at myself. What the fuck did you just say?
I did a media production subject in undergrad. I’ve developed black and white film. Silver nitrate and I have hung out like buddies, if one of those buddies can permanently stain the skin of the other. I didn’t pursue media production (although it did play an indirect role in me switching from Creative Arts to Science, but that’s another story). I didn’t reveal a heretofore unknown talent for the captured image like a beautiful photographer butterfly emerging from a wannabe novelist coccoon.
But I know how a camera works. I’m not stupid with cameras. Apertures, exposure time, depth of field – all those concepts make perfect sense to me. It’s just that I don’t remember what the icons on the dial represent relative to the kind of photos I would like to take, and that’s an issue of memory, not an issue of stupidity.
In fact, even if I hadn’t previously been taught about those concepts, that would be a case of ignorance, not stupidity.
This wasn’t the first time I’d had such a moment, but it was the first time I’d really, really noticed myself doing it.
I’ve noticed other women doing it.
I did my PhD in a university lab that, during my time there, was comprised entirely of women. Apart from some teething issues with a bullying R.A., it was a great work environment, and I still consider them close friends and some of the best people I have ever worked with.
Let us be clear. These are all highly intelligent women. They were all doing PhDs in science. They were all capable in a laboratory environment.
There was so much apology, so much self-deprecation in regards to their abilities, that it was no wonder a bully found fertile ground to play with it all in those early days.
I’m finding it a little hard to write about real people without making generalisations and naming names, so understand that the following stories are broad strokes.
I used to think I was dreadfully stupid at chemistry. I managed to scrape an H1 in the last required chemistry subject for my degree, so clearly this wasn’t a logical position. It took four months of work as an analytical chemist at CSL Pharmaceuticals (I was temping between finishing my Honours project and starting my PhD) to realise that the chemistry I was doing was just some basic maths and measurements, and once I realised that, suddenly it got easy. Chemistry is – or can be – an extremely complex discipline, but I wasn’t doing it at that level. My first year undergrad was actually sufficient to get by for the tests I was running.
This meant that by the time I started my PhD, making basic stock solutions held no fear for me. It took the uncertainty in the eyes of a colleague to remind me that, prior to working at CSL, I would have been really nervous even about putting together TE buffer (dead easy to make), let alone the phenol-chloroform-isoamyl mix (even easier to make, technically speaking, but with a significantly higher chance of burning and fuming and generally doing oneself harm).
It was really common for my colleagues to constantly put themselves down and second guess what they were doing – but they knew how to do these things. They never actually screwed it up. It’s one thing to get confused about picomoles vs nanomoles (10,000 pmol is the same as 10 nmol, but given the price of the fluorescently labelled primers and how rarely I use units with “pico” and “nano” in front of them, I do double-check), when tired after a couple of twelve hour work days. It’s another thing to panic and decide that you can’t deal with it, when demonstrably you can.
Since the branch of genetics that I work in is heavier on analysis than it is on lab work, we would spend some time over coffee musing over analytical options and approaches. There was often a chorus of, “I have no idea about some of that stuff,” and for the first year or so I was just as guilty as everyone else. And yet, a few sips into the first cappucino, we’d be tossing alternative approaches and limitations back and forth like pros. Which we were. Pros. And then I got some confidence. I looked around me, and realised that I actually seemed to know what I was talking about a good portion of the time, and I stopped apologising. I was willing to be corrected on analytical questions, but I stopped apologising for not knowing everything, and I stopped acting as though I knew less than I did.
I bought a textbook at a conference a few years ago: Wakeley’s Coalescent Theory. I understand the basics of coalescence, but I wanted to really get my head around the nuances of it. I got through about a chapter and a half and gave up, since one summary integration formula followed by pages of “As you can see from this summary formula” made me feel stupid and miserable.
It wasn’t until last year that an expert in this field mentioned the book, and said that, as an introduction for biologists, it wasn’t one, and really it was something to read through after you’d gone through this other book. I just didn’t have the background skills to get through Wakeley, and since the blurb raved about what a wonderful introduction it was to the subject, I decided I must be stupid.
Why is that the first option? Why isn’t the first option that perhaps you lack the background knowledge – or even that you have the background knowledge, and you actually know what you’re doing, but that society has told you for so long that women don’t do maths and chemistry, and the moment you hit a wall, your determination falters for a moment, because what if you really are trying to fit the round peg in a square hole, what if you really shouldn’t be doing this?
And even if you know better – you know that there’s really no gender in how this is done, and honestly, you get furious at feeling this way, because you know what you know, but the minute there’s someone in the room who might stereotype you, you start to falter and panic – because you’ve heard how some men talk about the women they work with, and you know how easy it is for you to end up in a box for one slip-up, one mistake, one faulty assertion – and you panic, and now you’re more likely to make those mistakes.
It’s called stereotype threat.
I am demonstrably not stupid. I actually have a pile of evidence, on hand, that I can supply to prove my lack of stupidity. I have no idea how intelligent other people will be, and I can’t make any assumptions as to where I fit relatively speaking when I meet someone (and it’s best not to do that sort of thing anyway), but having that evidence there reminds me that I am actually not stupid.
None of the women that I worked with were stupid. Most of them, at some point, said that they were. I ranted about the issue one time over coffee with one friend. She went quiet and thoughtful. The next time I saw her, she said, “I’ve been paying attention. I do that all the time.”
Apologise. Tell yourself you’re stupid. Tell yourself you don’t understand those things anyway. Because it’s perhaps easier to lower all expectations – within a conversation, or within yourself – than to try, and have some trouble, and then feel like everyone who told you that you couldn’t do science because you were a girl was right.
And it’s not just the scientists that I’ve worked with in the lab. It’s the older women, family and friends of the family, that I know, who back away and say, “You’re so smart. I could never understand all that stuff.”
Yes. Yes, you could. Stop selling yourself short. You are more than this.
But how do you fight a message that someone’s been getting their whole lives? You can’t. You just have to wait, and watch until they challenge themselves. Watch that delight as they realise, in some shock, that they are actually not stupid. Sure, it would have been nice to realise that forty years ago, but better late than never.