when i was a freshman in college, i became friends with two guys — i’ll call them bert and ernie. they were seniors, and i adored them. they were big-brother-types to me — bert the jaded and cynical one, ernie the outgoing and charismatic one.
several years later, after they graduated, ernie and i were having a conversation when he said something that surprised me.
“bert and i were talking the other day,” he said, “and we were like, ‘liz is the only really smart girl we know.'”
i was so shocked that i didn’t know what to say.
on one hand, i was honored. like i said before, i adored these guys. and clearly, their respect was hard to earn — but i, among all women, had succeeded. it was as though they had bestowed a laurel wreath upon my head.
on the other hand, on behalf of womankind, i felt insulted. i know lots of smart women. lots. like my best friend, a yale-educated neurosurgeon who also has an MBA, just for funzies. like my mom, who has a phd, who is chair of her department, who is president of a company she co-founded on the side of her full-time professorship, and who has invented something that i think will change the world. like my parents’ friends’ daughters, almost all of whom attended ivy league schools and went on to become successful doctors, researchers, and executives for fortune 500 companies. i grew up almost exclusively with really smart women. who were the dumbasses that bert and ernie were hanging out with?
and then because of the latter feeling, i felt guilty for having the first feeling, and then all of my emotions just got stirred up into a confusing, complicated mess.
i was reminded of that conversation today, over lunch with a friend, as we discussed some male co-workers of hers who really appreciate educated women. i felt the same kind of conflict i felt years ago: on one hand, i am an educated woman, and i appreciate that almost anywhere i go, my voice will be heard and respected because i have degrees that give me street cred. on the other hand, why does it require so many years of post-grad education to ensure that i’m taken seriously? and why are we lauding smart, educated women as though they’re rare birds when really, they’re everywhere?
conveniently, i had a meeting scheduled this afternoon with bert. i relayed the two conversations, he tried to find a way to articulate his position without offending me, and we had an interesting conversation about why men may have a hard time identifying smart women. in light of that conversation, here are some of my hypotheses:
– women are encouraged to be a lot of things — pretty, thin, bubbly — but smart often isn’t one of them. i think there are several reasons for this:
1. for a long time, it was widely believed that women simply weren’t as smart as men.
2. for a long time, it was widely believed that the aforementioned qualities — pretty, thin, bubbly — were more effective than intelligence in securing a husband, which was the goal for most women. (i don’t mean this in a disparaging way; for women throughout most of history, securing a husband has been a matter of survival.) thus, these qualities were reinforced. (and let’s be honest, there are still a lot of people, both women and men, who buy into this.)
3. these qualities continue to be reinforced on a global level. when you look at women in the media, the ones that get the most attention — the kardashians, the rihannas — aren’t the smart ones. they’re the hot ones. and that implicit value gets reinforced over and over and over again, both in the media and in real life.
4. even now, it is widely believed that men are intimidated or put off by women who are smarter than them, so smart women are encouraged, implicitly or explicitly, to downplay their intelligence so as not to scare them off.
ergo, a lot of smart women are likely not to play up that trait, especially around men, who may then erroneously conclude that there just aren’t many intelligent women around.
– because i am female, i probably have more female friends than the average man, and thus i probably see more variation than he might see. bert argued that he had a lot of female friends in college, but i’m still willing to wager that 1. their good girlfriends knew them better and 2. their behavior may have been affected by his male presence.
similarly, my sample may also be limited. i grew up in a community that was very egalitarian and that highly, highly, highly valued education, and these factors likely skewed my sample of women. these factors also shaped my values, and i’m drawn to women with similar ones. and i went to a good university and then to grad school, so naturally, my sample is going to be made up primarily of smart, educated women. maybe i’m only dealing with the top 5% or something.
– it may be a cultural thing. bert and ernie are korean american. at the risk of offending people (and my sincere apologies if i do, and please correct me if you think i am mistaken), i have observed, in my non-random sample of friends, that my korean american female friends face a lot more pressure from their parents to get married than my chinese american female friends do. (perhaps this is a result of korean culture being more patriarchal? or maybe it’s a function of acculturation level and not culture? or maybe it’s just the people i know.) if this is true outside of my circle of friends too, then it makes sense to me why korean american women especially would play up the qualities that are more likely to land them husbands and play down the ones that might push them away. (again, ten thousand apologies if i’ve offended you, and please let me know if i have.)
similarly, my friend’s coworkers are white and their workplace fairly conservative. it wouldn’t surprise me if they work with a lot of women who hold more traditional roles (stay-at-home mothers, teachers, nurses) and they don’t encounter women with post-graduate degrees very often. but this is purely speculation.
so that’s what i’m thinking. if you have more ideas, i’d love to hear them, especially from all you smart women out there. (there are a lot of you, i know. i got your back, and — taking off my modesty hat for a moment — i am honored to be in your company.)