Part 1 of two pieces on careers and women. Why women are expected to be more quiet, speak less, and be more self-deprecating than men.
I’m a pretty shy girl. Well, maybe shy isn’t the right word. I can often be quite friendly and steer conversations in a social setting. I sometimes even introduce myself in a self-confident and open manner and continue to an interesting topic of conversation such as ‘what do you think of the bunting?’ and ‘isn’t the selection of desserts great?’ like I did at my friend’s wedding party this weekend. But as soon as I admire a person, as soon as I think they are talented, interesting or, let’s face it, hot, I clam up. I start to put myself down and insist that I am a less worthy human being than them who doesn’t deserve to kiss the ground at their creative/innovative/sexy feet.
I find myself jealous of people who are able to speak about their career with confidence. Men, in particular, seem to have the gift of the gab. An ability to find the right words and have an unashamedly self-confident attitude that will make their listener believe that their companion is a man worth listening to; a man who knows his stuff.
“I’m pretty much a nobody really. You should probably talk to someone else. “
When I meet people, I am often frustrated at my own inability to, as it were, big myself up. When asked what I do I generally freak out and put myself down as if to insist, contrary to my own belief, that I am a really boring and unsuccessful person with no talents whatsoever. Although I am a pretty fucking clever, talented and well-travelled person with plenty of strong opinions the way I describe myself gives off the subliminal message ‘I’m pretty much a nobody really, not worth talking to. You should probably talk to someone else. ’ I’m pretty much a self-confidence train wreck, really, akin to Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns before she gets transformed into back-from-the-dead Catwoman.
The conversation usually gets off to a good start. I say ‘I am a writer’ to which people respond in a genuinely interested way. Faced with this positive reaction I invariably to continue to make sure my conversation partner knows just how unsuccessful a writer I am by stressing that I ‘only’ write on my blog and the internet, and that I don’t get paid for it. That my zine is only an amateur home-printed publication.
It all depends how you spin it. While the above information is true, it doesn’t mean that I am less talented or successful than the self-confident guy who ‘has a studio’, ‘exhibits worldwide’ and ‘is currently exploring a way to replicate soundscapes in a digital application’. I can either say I am an unpaid blogger with larger writing aspirations, I give workshops on sex and sexuality and I teach English to German kids or I can say I am a self-employed writer with a moderate online following who is currently experimenting with her creativity while living in Berlin. I can say how I conceived, edited and promoted an 80-page bilingual publication and recently organised and performed in a cabaret attended by over 600 people.
See, I even had to insert the word ‘moderate’ there. I AM SO TERRIBLE AT SELF-PROMOTION!
While I think I have always been insecure and afraid of bigging myself up, I do think this tendency to downplay is more common in women. A lot of the British career women I know, no matter how brilliant, habitually talk in a way that puts themselves down. We undermine our achievements in order to appear more socially acceptable. We make ourselves seem more stupid, smaller, less significant in order to cater to the subconscious idea that a woman is meant to have a lower place in society than a man.
A man is encouraged from birth to inhabit his personality and develop his abilities. He is nurtured in a way that women often aren’t, who are taught to hide their brilliance and pretend that they are somehow lesser than they are.
I see this attitude in my parents’ celebration of my intelligence along with their desire to push me into a ‘normal’ job. Any job will do, no matter how unsuitable, so long as I fit into the mainstream idea of acceptable-things-to-do-with-your-life. They would rather I were a miserable secretary, employed in a job that uses none of my creativity, than a happy, unknown artist (if I were famous like JK Rowling, as my Dad points out, that would be another matter).
It is now my project to stop apologising for myself when asked what I do for a living. I am going to proudly claim my artist / writer label and not say, ‘but don’t worry, I’m really brainless and broke and what you do is way more important anyway’. I’m going to be proud. Go get ‘em girl.