On being a “stereotypical girl” in a professional world

On being a “stereotypical girl” in a professional world

My junior year of high school, we took our ACTs. Everyone was telling each other their scores, comparing numbers that supposedly proved how “smart” we all were. I remember one of my friends laughingly telling me that she overheard a group of our friends mention my ACT score. She said “It was great, they were all so shocked that you got such an high score!”

My first response was a little bit of pride, admittedly, because yeah, I kicked the ACT’s ass (not that that a standardized really proves you’re smart at all, but that’s a blog post for another day). But my second, stronger feeling was hurt.

Wait, what? Why were they shocked…?”

My friend looked surprised. “You know, you just act… dumb, sometimes.”

At the look on my face, she quickly added she of course knew I wasn’t unintelligent but that my mannerisms and personality seemed to suggest that I was.

This was my first, but certainly not last, experience with realizing I was being judged as “dumb” by others. Throughout my life, I have been described as ditzy, an airhead, a “blonde” (which first of all, I’m a brunette, and secondly, what the hell is wrong with being blonde??), shallow and, of course, dumb.

First of all, I would like to point out that maybe at this point you’re thinking a few things, such as:

Well, maybe you’re actually just dumb.

If people think you’re ditzy, why don’t you stop acting ditzy? 

Is this really that big of a deal? Who cares what people think!

So, let me address these one by one. 

  1. Well, maybe you’re actually just dumb.

Well, what does “being dumb” really mean? Our society has a messed up view of what’s considered intelligence and what isn’t. If someone can list 200 digits of pi, is that intellect or is that rote memorization? If someone knows the day every war started, do they automatically understand why the war started in the first place? How do we measure intelligence anyway? IQ tests have gotten a lot of flack about their accuracy and how they work. Standardized tests involve filling in bubbles about either random information or something you memorized for the test alone and then will forget in a week.

Arguably, much of our education is based not on truly understanding topics and connecting them to a broader picture about the world, but a more shallow, short-term glimpse into one specific topic that may or may not stick with us for more than a semester. So, really, I can’t sit here and tell you that I’m smart because my ACT score was this and my IQ is this and oh, I got these grades in high school, because I don’t think that really proves anything. Intelligence comes in many forms and shapes, and no number or letter can embody what you’re capable of.

What I can tell you, however, is that I know I’m not stupid, and I definitely don’t deserve to be labelled as such. But what is more interesting and worth analyzing are the reasons why people label me as unintelligent..

Which leads me to the next question:

2. If people think you’re ditzy, why don’t you stop acting ditzy? 

Because I’m not acting ditzy.

A lot of girls may feel the same pain I do in being perceived as unintelligent or ditzy. I’ve talked to lots of women who have experienced this and they have the same question I do: What am I doing that makes people think that about me? There are a few key characteristics that are used to describe a woman who is considered a “ditz”. Some of these include:

  • Talking a lot
  • Enjoying things such as cheesy movies and books
  • Being focused on appearance/vain
  • Talking about “silly” or “shallow” topics
  • Saying “like” a lot
  • Taking selfies/pictures

Why are these traits associated with unintelligence? Part of the reason is due to our society’s portrayal of women in movies, books, media, ect. For example, take a look at almost any classic high school movie or show. In a group of girls, there’s very often a “dumb” friend. Take Mean Girls, for example. Karen is hilarious, of course, but she perpetuates that very stereotype of the “dumb, pretty” friend that is then applied to real-life women. She’s silly and talkative, portrayed as vain and just not all there.

When these characteristics are ascribed over and over again to the “dumb” girl in shows, we unconsciously begin to associate them with unintelligence in real life. A talkative girl who happens to like Vampire Diaries, a woman who enjoys going out and false eyelashes, a young girl who fills her Instagram with selfies; all of these somehow make others think she is of lesser intellect than those who don’t do those things.

I talk a lot. I laugh at myself a lot and yes, I like taking selfies. And none of these things should have any further meaning. And yet I have often had them listed off to me to explain why I’m seen as ditzy. As if I’m on trial for the crime of being stupid and the evidence against me is “Well, you talk all the time,” “You just act ridiculous sometimes,” “You’re just not very serious,”.

I shouldn’t have to be serious 100% of the time, or even 50% of the time, to prove my intellect to you. I should be able to laugh at myself, put on high heels and put on some goddamn winged eyeliner without being called shallow. I should be able to send a text that says “lol smiley face emoji” without being discredited completely on all serious topics.

Girls can wear their shortest dress, go to the club, talk about Pretty Little Liars, take 40 pictures of themselves and go to their honors level class the next day and kick ass. 

Women’s actions are all too often used against them, to stereotype them, devalue them and overall discredit them. Sometimes, people do things just because they like them, and that should be the end of that.

Acting Dumb

There is another side to this. There have been times that I, and I think other girls will admit to this too, have dumbed myself down on purpose. Just like in Mean Girls when Cady pretended to be bad at math so Aaron Samuels would tutor her, I pretended to be stupid primarily to get attention.

In high school, especially, this was for whatever reason the popular thing to do. Whether it made my friends laugh or prolonged a conversation with some boy, I can honestly say I consciously made an effort to act like a ditz sometimes, and other girls around me did the same thing. This is such a long and complex topic about why young girls, and even older women, do this at times that I put it in another blog post for the sake of length. You can find this brief tangent here, or you can continue on.

The basic idea is that society rewards girls for being pretty and popular, not for being smart. With the constant pressure to be liked and perfect, girls may betray key traits about themselves in exchange for what the media tells them is “the ideal”.

So, the next point of discussion:

3. Why does this even matter?

The impact that this stereotype has on girls is enormous. If you tell someone they are something enough, they will begin to believe it. If you tell a girl she is an airhead, she’s a ditz, she’s dumb, she will internalize those words. Girls begin to question themselves, especially in subjects such as math and science, not because they’re bad at them but because they have little confidence in their own abilities, as this study shows.

This lack of confidence follows us into the rest of our lives. (See my other post about the lack of confidence women have in the professional world, or this great article about it).  Once you’re taught your whole life that you aren’t smart enough, it’s hard to shake the feeling that nothing you do is good enough, at all. The most frustrating feeling is when people tune out every word you say and won’t take you seriously based on a snap judgement they made based on your appearance and your general demeanor. If no one else will listen to you, you begin to believe you’re just not worth listening to.

And finally, it also makes it hard to be true to yourself. My talkative nature has been so often thrown in my face as proving my unintelligence, I often found myself constantly biting my tongue. When I started my new job, I obsessed over what clothes to buy because my worst fear was dressing in a way that meant people wouldn’t take me seriously. I didn’t want to joke around with coworkers because what if they thought I was just a silly dumb girl?

Moving on

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten much more comfortable with the idea that people, including myself, can be what some would call a contradiction. Women, and men, (and all those inbetween) can be a collection of seemingly contradictory traits and that’s perfectly fine. Judging people is something we have been taught since we were kids, but we can also unlearn those damaging labels.

More importantly, we can unlearn the stereotypes that we have been taught to believe about ourselves. People will be putting you into a box your whole life, so let them keep their stupid box. You don’t have to carry that shit.

 

Just keep laughing, they’ll like you more

Just keep laughing, they’ll like you more

This blog post is in relation to the post What it’s like to be the dumb, pretty friend, but it can also stand alone for its own purpose.

Acting Dumb

What this, quite generally, might mean (in my personal experience) is truly acting, consciously and knowingly, as if you aren’t intelligent. For me, it embarrassingly took the form of simply pretending I didn’t know what was going on or acting like I didn’t previously know the information being told to me. (You guys better appreciate me divulging this because it’s pretty cringeworthy to think about.)

So, why did I act like that? Why did other girls around me act like this sometimes?

Once again, I’m going to point a giant finger at the media. TV shows on Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and other popular forums are rife with the construct of the “pretty” girl. There are few shows that are focused solely on a young girl’s intelligence. Girls are taught that their favorite characters are so great because they’re attractive, and people like them because they’re attractive. This is sold by the media because it’s profitable. If young girls connect being attractive with being popular and, thus, being happy, they’re often going to do whatever it takes to achieve that perfect image (i.e. buying clothes, make-up, ect.) and give money to a multi-billion dollar industry that plays off the insecurities of women.

Media critic Mark Crispin Miller points out that advertising sells anxiety to the young. “It’s always telling them that they are not thin enough, they’re not pretty enough, they don’t have the right friends, or they have no friends…they’re losers unless they’re cool.”

So girls are encouraged to play dumb, to play down their intellect and play up their attractiveness, because they’ve been conditioned to associate popularity with happiness.

It also means that going against these expectations is punishing. When I was in grade school, I raised my hand in class at every question. I read more books than the local librarian could believe. I loved school and knowledge and telling people about that knowledge. And I bet you can guess what people thought of me.

I was called a know-it-all, bossy, teacher’s pet, and, later on, a bitch. I was made fun of, bullied and eventually isolated.

I remember looking at the “popular” girls in my third grade class and asking myself “Why do people (more specifically, boys) like them and not me?” I realized that boys didn’t like how much those girls knew or what books they read, they liked her hair, or her clothes, or how much she laughed at their jokes.

And so, ditzy Kaley was born. I learned that my friends laughed when I said typically “dumb” things, that boys flirted with me not when I discussed history or other serious topics, but instead when I laughed a lot and flipped my hair (not that laughing a lot and flipping your hair is bad: see other blog post).

What I didn’t realize in all of those scenarios is labels are not hats you can put on and take off whenever you want. People like putting others in boxes; it helps us organize and make sense of life. That means that we’re prone to stereotype others. While I may have been acting silly to get my friend’s attention for a few minutes, I didn’t realize that I was trapping myself in a the “dumb, pretty girl” box. And that box is not easy to escape from.

 

Our insecurity blanket

Our insecurity blanket

The first time I raised my hand to pitch an idea in a newsroom, I began with four to five disclaimers before even getting to my actual point. It went something like this:
“Sorry, I know this is probably wrong, or someone already said it, or it’s probably stupid, and I don’t know if it makes sense, but ________.”

And then I ended it with, “That probably made no sense, sorry, I don’t know.”

Let’s analyze this for a second, because chances are, you have either heard yourself and/or others do this same self-deprecating, questioning speech many times. And you’ve probably heard it, unfortunately, from a woman.

This type of speech is common for women in professional settings. (This brilliant WashPost article, for example, rewrites famous quotes, “the way a woman would have to say them during a meeting”. ) Not only ingenious and entertaining, but also poignant and telling.

Throughout my life, whether in a classroom, at a party or in an office, men typically make their voices known more loudly, more assuredly and more often than their female counterparts. Of course that is a generalization, and I’ve met my share of confident, outspoken women and shy, uncertain men. People of all genders suffer from insecurity or are just not outspoken. And yet women have been proven to be less confident and less likely to speak up than men, especially in a professional environment.

I read this article recently on this phenomena known as “The Confidence Gap”. While I wish it had gone more in-depth about the social and psychological aspects, overall it provides an excellent analysis of the difference between the confidence levels of men and women and, more importantly, why it exists.

To summarize (even though you should definitely at least peruse that article) there are a number of aspects that may play into this discrepancy. One example begins in the schoolyard.

Firstly, girls are taught from a young age that they are rewarded for being “good girls”: quiet, neat, calm. They are rewarded for being this “perfect” child and learn to link their self worth to this praise. Boys, on the other hand, are excused by a “boys will be boys mentality”. They are expected to be rowdy, loud and messy. While generally this means that boys are scolded more often than girls, it also means that when children are criticized, girls take it more to heart. They internalize those feelings, attributing them to a problem with their deeper selves, while boys often learn to blame external factors.

This is just one example (shortened and simplified quite a bit: read the article!!) of the way in which boys and girls are socialized to see themselves a certain way and to act based on the expectations of others. Many girls, then, learn that being quiet gains approval while speaking up can lead to judgement and, even worse, mistakes. Many boys learn they are rewarded for displaying “masculine” qualities such as competitiveness, outspokenness and assertiveness. (Both sets of these expectations cause problems for all gendered people; this particular post is simply focusing on women.)

And so, after years of sociological and psychological imprinting from a society still steeped in sexism, we reach the later part of our lives when we may be entering the professional world.

Many women, even unconsciously, have a fear of speaking in front of others because they’re terrified of being wrong. For me, even if I was 99% sure I knew the answer in class, I bit my tongue. If I had been thinking of a great idea for a week, it rarely crossed my mind to actually bring it up to someone. Even in large groups outside of work or class, I would often edit everything I thought about saying before actually saying it and then, if it wasn’t perfect, kick myself for speaking up at all.

Of course, not every woman does this, and many men may experience the same problems. Additionally, part of this problem can come from anxiety and other disorders, which impacts millions of people, no matter the gender.

And yet, as I’ve said, women have been proven again and again to suffer from this intense confidence-anxiety more often than men.

This manifests itself in a number of ways. Many females, even those that meet all of society’s requirements for being “successful”(wealthy, powerful, intelligent, ect.), second-guess themselves, constantly self-critique, underestimate their abilities and downplay their own role in their successes.

When I first started thinking about this, I kind of scoffed, to be honest. I don’t do that. I thought. And just like that, I was taken back to a moment my sophomore year during my first news reporting class. My professor told me that my article, which was assigned as a project not meant for publication, was brilliant and well researched. She told me to take it to the local newspaper (the good ol’ Missourian) and look into getting it published. I remember telling a friend and hearing him exclaim how great that was and complimenting my work. I told him that there was no way I was going to turn in that story, I had just gotten lucky and stumbled on that information, and I was definitely not the most qualified person to write the story. And I really believed that. (And no, I didn’t end up publishing the story or going anywhere near the Missourian until the next year).

During my multimedia class, my professor told me I had a gift for photography. I had been told I was bad at art my entire life, and convinced myself I had just magically stumbled across good shots. When a coworker told me I was good at interviews, I laughed and said no way, I talk too much.

Even writing this, it feels like bragging, like I should throw a disclaimer in here to make sure readers don’t think I believe I really am good at all of those things. Which proves just how entrenched this low confidence attitude really is, that even when you recognize it, it’s still hard to shake.

I’ve heard so many of my female friends and coworkers say these same negative mantras about their own work. I just guessed well and got lucky. I was in the right place at the right time. I’m not really good at this, I shouldn’t be here. I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m not as qualified as someone else. I don’t, I’m not, I can’t, I shouldn’t…

And so on and so on with this unsure, insecure, second-guessing… well, bullshit, to be frank. This isn’t modesty. This is taking all of our talents and successes and badass-ness and burying it underground beneath excuses and inaccurate attribution. This is undermining all of our hard work and natural gifts. This is taking our incredible natures and throwing it in the universe’s face. This is dooming us to never fully grasp not only how great we are, but how great we can still become.

Because it is not ridiculous at all to say every woman I’ve met has had an enormous amount of potential. I know women who are incredible doctors, artists, mothers, CEO’s, journalists, athletes, friends, teachers, photographers, writers, listeners, talkers… And I bet half of them don’t even know it. And they should.

So I have a message for them (and for myself).

It’s time to stop starting every sentence with an apology. It’s time to stop ending every thought with a disclaimer. It’s time to stop attributing every success to some external factor. It’s time to stop telling ourselves we’re not good enough or we don’t belong here. It’s time to stop second-guessing ourselves.

It’s time to shed our insecurity blanket.

It’s time to be confident.

Today was my first day at my internship at Politico in Brussels.

When I had an idea, I called over a coworker and said; “Hey, here’s my idea.” And that was it. And it was a good one.

 

Photocred: Katealia Lilly