• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Winning Through Intimidation

Perceptions real and imagined.

March 15, 2015

I grew up believing that I was "dumb at math."This was partly because my father, an IRS agent, would routinely try to help me with my homework and end up yelling at me that I was "stupid" for not immediately grasping the concepts he tried to communicate, but the belief was also supported by a school environment that presumed that girls weren't competent in STEM subjects (I started kindergarten in 1957. No one I knew even questioned "la diffėrence" until around 1968.)

My self concept was challenged when I did better on the math sections of the state Regents scholarship exam and on the SATs than many of my male classmates who were known to be good at math. This was surprising to my teachers and fellow students, not only because I was known as a language and arts scholar but a math and science dunce, but because I was one of the few high scoring students who had not taken an expensive prep course. The questions all just made sense to me.

My scores didn't make much of a difference at that time, because my parents had already picked a college for me based on low cost and the non-presence of male students. I could have gotten in with much lower scores than I had. But the experience repeated itself when I took the GREs, except that this time I did invest in a prep course. The teacher of the math and logic sections asked me to stop asking so many questions because "you're showing me up, making me look bad." That hadn't been my intent. I didn't understand some of the material and assumed it was my failure, but apparently my questions were exposing holes in his thinking. I did well on those exams, too.

None of this was higher level math, and I don't think I have what it takes to be a mathematician, by any stretch of the imagination. What struck me was how much better I did, in both instances, than the guys I knew who thought they excelled at this stuff. And for the most part, the differential in our scores didn't change anyone's perceptions. They were happy with their scores and felt mine were a fluke, and I sort of agreed.

I have been thinking about this lately for two reasons. First, as I have become more active in the improv world, I have run into an increasing number of situations in which the most confident, aggressive players run roughshod over the quieter, more thoughtful ones. It is common enough so that my friends and I have come up with a term for the people (usually men, but not always) who do this: talkovers (as in, "I try to avoid scene work with Jeremy; he's a real talkover.") Unfortunately, talkovers are often rewarded with praise and enhanced work opportunities that their less aggressive counterparts are denied because we have been essentially blasted off the stage.

Second, this article resonated with me, for obvious reasons.

Recently, I was in a talkover situation so severe that I ended up dropping out, even though it was otherwise rewarding. I started feeling inadequate, as though this wouldn't have happened if I were an interesting performer, as though perhaps my teammates were forced to interrupt and talk over me because I wasn't contributing anything worthwhile.

I was upset enough about it to talk to a trusted teacher who has also directed me in several films. He reassured me, "Assertiveness is is a vastly overrated skill on the New York improv scene. It isn't nearly as important as listening, bringing reality to a scene, or supporting your partner—all skills that you excel at. And assertiveness can be taught. If someone doesn't know how to listen, that's probably characterological, and it isn't going to be fixed by a class."

I'm lucky. I am doing improv for fun, and my teacher's words empowered me to seek out opportunities to play with people who are more like me. My musical improv house team has created a mutually supportive, respectful environment, and the wonderful 2prov show I have started doing every week is called "Molasses" because the emphasis is on taking one's time; talkovers and "improv gimmicks" aren't allowed. And these experiences have led to other opportunities to play the way I want to.

But the women of Silicon Valley aren't so lucky. This is their livelihood. They can't pick and choose jobs according to what is most congenial to them. They need to survive in an atmosphere that rewards aggressive self promotion over teamwork and cooperation, and possibly even excellence of ideas and work product.

The older I get, the less tolerant I become of this kind of bullying and undermining. Yelling louder than a teammate or coworker, or insulting and intimidating a fellow internet user until she leaves the game, doesn't make you smart or clever or right; you may "win" but what you are proving you are best at is bulldozing, not thinking or producing. We teach our children that this kind of behavior is childish and destructive. Why are adults rewarded for it?


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