Assuming (In)Competence

How we are judged.

June 8, 2015

A few weeks ago, my son broke his arm.

He broke his arm quite badly, actually, in a semi-public space, surrounded by people we sort of knew; not complete strangers, but people who didn’t know us very well and vice-versa.  

I heard him scream in a way I’ve never heard before, saw his arm, and snapped (haha) into action. I directed my husband to get our son to the car while I grabbed the health insurance card, and we were off to the hospital in less than five minutes, knowing exactly where to go. I knew that when my son started shivering uncontrollably while in the examination room that his body was potentially going into shock, and how to deal with it. Five hours later (because my son had just eaten so we had to wait to set the arm), we emerged, with a temporary cast, and no worse for wear.

Twenty years, and I still remembered my training as a lifeguard. Twenty years later, when something goes down, I can still handle the situation effectively, efficiently, and calmly, even if it involves my own child. And, I know that this isn’t necessarily a given, having dealt with hysterical parents when I was a lifeguard, for accidents less serious than the one my son suffered. However, I was still taken aback by the reaction of other attendees of the party where my son broke his arm, as reported to me by my husband.

Everyone was impressed with how I reacted … a little too impressed. No one thought, based on their, albeit limited knowledge of me, that I had it in me, to handle a crisis as well as I did. But first impressions are important, and this tells me something important about the first impression I give off. And also what perhaps the default assumption is of me because I am the way I am, I look the way I look.

Did they have equally low expectations of my husband?

Who I am, how I look, has almost always been a liability professionally (although my embodied self is less of a liability than other embodied selves). And this isn’t just me reading too much into things; there are now webinars to help aspiring women academics be less…well, less “like a girl” because it is a professional liability, leading hiring committees, potential colleagues, bosses, to assume you are in fact not a professional, but instead incompetent. Part of me knows that I am the perfect candidate for a webinar like this because I know I am doing everything wrong. But another part of me is tired of trying to bend myself into something I am not, while hiding behind the rhetoric of becoming the “best version.”

My best version, however, can’t also be too much like a guy, or is equally punished. This recent podcast on using play in the classroom highlights the different ways men and women are perceived when using this approach to learning: women are seen as unserious. Having grown up around guys, and often understood myself as “one of the guys” socially, it’s increasingly frustrating that this kind of behavior, behavior that when enacted by a man is celebrated, makes things worse for me, for women. None of this is new, and there is an entire industry on helping women become more “acceptable” in the workplace and in various social situations, and academia is just now catching up, in terms at least of the commercialization of the materials. When the majority of adjuncts are women, you do start to feel like maybe there is something wrong with you, as a woman.

Or maybe there is something very wrong with the matters at hand.

I’ve read a lot about how when you turn 40 you stop caring so much about what other people think of you (or maybe it’s 50 now). I don’t know how I can do that, starting a new career and trying (again) to move up the professional ladder, but now also make important connections so that my children can have play dates, make new friends, and be accepted into social situation.

It’s exhausting, frustrating, and impossible. What a great message my kids are getting.


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