When I was a girl, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I discovered something wonderful called science fiction. This, in turn, led me to discover something wonderful called science. Cut to ahem, mumble-mumble years later and I’m a SF author, a physicist and an amateur sociologist. As a SF fan I enjoy stories in which women are the heroes, kicking butt (literally and metaphorically) in exciting futures, possibly in new societies on other worlds with fascinating alien creatures. But as I observe the real-life nonfictional society and world around me, it’s pretty evident that men and women generally behave differently. Women appear a little hesitant to kick butt in real life. Why is this? I’ve spent a lot of time pondering these trends and I’ve read a lot of articles and studies. Of course each individual is genetically different, but I have finally concluded women are less assertive, in large part, because of gender socialization.
As UNICEF says on their Early Gender Socialization page: Gender socialization is the process by which people learn to behave in a certain way, as dictated by societal beliefs, values, attitudes and examples. …Boys are told not to cry, not to fear, not to be forgiving and instead to be assertive, and strong. Girls on the other hand are asked not to be demanding, to be forgiving and accommodating and ‘ladylike’.
In our society females are taught explicitly and implicitly to cooperate rather than compete. As a result, we share rather than grabbing something for ourselves. This extends even to sharing credit and being team players rather than being go-getters. Don’t get me wrong, sharing and cooperating are awesome. But taking credit for something neat you’ve worked hard for and accomplished is also awesome.
Thus, as a byproduct of gender socialization, women are not as self-assured and confident as they should be. I think implicit assumptions are particularly difficult to combat. One insidious example of this can be imposter syndrome wherein someone doesn’t believe they really deserve their success.
I’m not alone in these conclusions about gender socialization. There have been many studies about all this. For example, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman discuss “The Confidence Gap” in the May 2014 issue of The Atlantic They say women have made a lot of progress over the years in terms of their careers and families, but when they don’t believe in their competence their success suffers. It turns out women primarily feel confident when they approach perfection–and I think we all know how common perfection is!
Data shows women consistently underestimate their performances and abilities, while men customarily do not. Data further shows there is generally no significant difference in the quality of male and female performances and abilities. This confidence gap means women attempt new challenges less often than men, and oftentimes learn to avoid taking risks. Women can let their doubts stop them from applying for that new job, from asking for a deserved raise, from publishing that book. But in reality, when women lose their confidence and let their doubts win, we all lose.
The first step to solving a problem is to recognize that the problem exists. Consequently, the bottom line is: since women are as competent as men they should feel as confident as men. If they do not, this is a problem. Now that we’re aware of it, let’s overcome our explicit and implicit programming. Let’s solve this problem by being confident in our abilities and by trying new things.
Hence, as we start a new year, I say: let’s all resolve to have pride in our own accomplishments. Let’s value our skills and abilities. Let’s appreciate ourselves and our female friends and relatives. Let’s all internalize how truly wonderful we are.
With Martin Luther King Jr. Day near and Black History Month approaching, I’m reminded of the gospel children’s song “This Little Light of Mine.”
This little light of mine I’m going to let it shine…
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
I’m going to try to keep this in mind throughout the New Year. Won’t you join me? Let’s all kick a little butt in 2017!
Happy New Year!
Lesley L. Smith — Lesley L. Smith has a Ph.D. in Elementary Particle Physics and an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. Her short SF has appeared in various venues including Analog Science Fiction and Fact. She’s published several novels including Quantum Cop, Kat Cubed, Temporal Dreams and Quantum Murder. She’s a founder and editor of the speculative fiction ezine Electric Spec and is an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.