Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
One Way Confidence Will Look
Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2014 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.
The personal narrative in this NYT piece reminded me that we often socialize men to think that the absence of a NO implies a YES*, and that we often socialize women to think that the absence of a YES implies a NO.
We install different defaults. One entitled, the other deferential.
Generally, then, the errors that one makes will more consistently be, for some people, errors of overconfidence, or, for other people, errors of overreticence. (I'm talking more about professional life than about personal relationships, although I imagine there's some overlap.)
Which do you want to encourage? "Go for it" or "don't do anything bold"? "File bug reports" or "assume no one wants to hear your point of view"?
Therefore, when you see a woman erring in the right direction, don't slap her wrist. In your workplace, in your school, or when you read about an entrepreneur or an artist or an activist who's taking a risk, don't call women pushy or bitchy or naggy or arrogant or know-it-all or bossy or "difficult" for erring in the direction we want women to err!
If she has to yell to be heard when she's the only one who sees trouble ahead, the answer is to make sure she gets heard in the future without having to yell, rather than punishing her for yelling.
Don't punish her for assuming people need to hear her perspective, for defaulting to yes, for reading the absence of a no to be a yes.
I know this feels like it might end up unfair, subjective, messy. But it's already that way. I used to worship logic and I had no patience with nuance, tact, or drawing-out. In particular it took me quite a long time to work out that socially constructed things are real too. "So I think it's when you're committed to rules being fair and playing by them to the point you go hunting around for new rules, the SECRET RULES, rather than admit the world is an unfair and chaotic place." As one Bitcoin enthusiast writes:
The average problem with the average libertarian though (and by this I mean someone who comes to such ideals not via a critical intellectual process, but because they like the sound of it), is that they're hypersensitive towards recognising overt forms of power - like the bouncer standing at the nightclub door - but have muted ability (or desire) to recognise implicit forms of power, the subtle structures of exclusion that actually do most of the work in maintaining a status quo.
They assume that in the absence of the bouncer there's a level playing field. ....
Indeed, in the context of a non-level playing field, not making an overt effort to include is just a subtle (albeit non-deliberate) form of exclusion.
I am trying to encourage you to make a world where it's safe for women to stop protectively apologizing to deflect criticism, to stop apologizing unless we've actually done something wrong. I have my own internalized sexism so it's something I work on, too -- I notice my own reaction, my tone policing reflex, and (try to) stop myself from saying anything harmful aloud. And as Harriet suggests, I reflect on my prejudice, sit with my discomfort, and try to do better next time.
Please join me.
* I particularly direct your attention to the dissection that starts "Another pattern of the privileged: not keeping track of the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior." Further reading: in sexual consent, "Mythcommunication: It’s Not That They Don’t Understand, They Just Don’t Like The Answer", and in professional life, "this is a thing that happens."