Welcome to STEMinism Sunday! As a former woman in science, I have a deep and enduring interest in the experiences and representation of women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). This series will be an opportunity for me – and you – to learn more about these intellectual badasses.
Two things you might not have known about me:
- We moved around a LOT when I was young, so I was the new kid right up until high school.
- I was a gifted kid who learned quickly and tested very, very well.
In combination, these things are kid kryptonite. NO ONE likes the kid who moves to town and is suddenly at the top of the class (especially that kid who was at the top of the class a hot second before).
Bullying ensued. It sucked.
It also taught me that if I wanted to survive, I was going to have to find some defensive mechanisms right quick. I developed a two-pronged strategy:
- Never tell anyone what I “got” on a test or assignment. This worked much better after teachers stopped reading everyone’s marks out loud. Seriously, teachers – never, ever do that to your class. Except for those kids comfortably in the middle, it is THE WORST.
- Deflect and downplay.
I stopped raising my hand in class, answering a question only if the teacher specifically asked me to (and avoiding eye contact so they’d ask less often). I avoided leadership roles or any activities that would draw attention to me, and tried to stand in the back whenever I could. If someone said, “Great job on that test,” I wouldn’t say thanks, I’d say, “I got lucky.” If someone said, “You’re really smart,” I’d say, “No, I just studied really hard – you could do it, too.”
I thought that by doing this, I’d protect myself from negative attention. If it was true that “They only tease you because they are jealous”* maybe the secret was not giving them a reason to be jealous.** It… only sort of worked (finding really good friends worked better – there’s protection in numbers).
I also thought that, by downplaying my achievements, I’d make other people feel better about themselves. I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I was actually doing was making myself feel worse. By telling people that anyone could do what I had done, I robbed myself of the right to feel proud of what I’d accomplished.
It’s only recently that I’ve realized I am still doing this – telling myself that my successes are accidental, or coincidental, or just not that big a deal. I’m uncomfortable taking pride in my hard work or celebrating my own “wins.” That sentence in the intro where I described myself as a gifted kid? I had to re-write it four times before I could convince myself that it was OK to use the word “gifted” without scare quotes.
I am not alone in my fear of drawing attention to myself. Women in STEM – and other academic fields, and in society in general – are taught to be quiet, to take up less space in the room, and to never make anyone else uncomfortable. This not only makes it harder for us to succeed, but harder for us to own our success – to feel joy and pride and satisfaction in our work. The joy and pride and satisfaction we’ve legitimately earned.
So how do we learn to stop apologizing for our success?
Here are some things that I’m personally working on, with varying degrees of success:
- Recognizing that I’ve been lying to myself and everyone else for years. It’s not actually true that anyone could do the things I’ve done. Yes, I really am incredibly lucky – blessed with good genes and parents who had the means to provide me with books and educational opportunities. But I also work really, really hard. And while I can’t take credit for the good genes or the privileged upbringing, I can take credit for the work ethic. That’s mine, and the products of that work ethic are mine, too, no apologies necessary.
- Recognizing that there’s a difference between giving credit where it’s due and giving away ALL the credit.
- Recognizing that there’s a difference between unearned arrogance and justifiable pride.
- Recognizing that, while it IS my responsibility be kind, I CANNOT be responsible for someone else’s happiness or self-esteem.
- Recognizing that, while other people might not be able to do what I can do, they can do AMAZEBALLS things that I could never do. And cheering for their accomplishments makes me feel better about cheering for my own.
I’ve shared this in the hopes that it will help other women who are struggling with the same issues. But I’d really like your help, too. How have you learned to stop apologizing for your accomplishments? No really, I’m asking. I’m all ears. 😀
*a platitude that’s just as dangerous as “He only pulled your hair because he likes you.”
**without actually sacrificing performance, obviously, because I had also been taught that it’s really important to always do your best