I spent my high school years at a tiny, all-girls Catholic school.
Before I go on, I need you to banish the image of a stereotypic Catholic school girl–sweet-faced, wearing knee-high socks and a pleated tartan miniskirt that barely covers her ass, her glasses lowered as she pouts with puffy, bee-stung lips.
Excise her from your mental database.
That was not our school. At our school, we were expected to exceed stereotypes, to assert ourselves, to be intellectually curious, volubly so.
Speaking while female is a rarity these days, according to Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s recent New York Times op-ed, particularly for successful businesswomen:
When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea. As a result, women often decide that saying less is more.
In fact, as Sandberg and Grant point out, research by Yale psychologist Victoria L. Brescoll confirms that “women who worry that talking ‘too much’ will cause them to be disliked are not paranoid; they are often right.”
Sandberg and Grant’s article got me thinking about what a gift attending an all-girls Catholic high school turned out to be.
I didn’t think so at the time, especially whenever I donned my hideous uniform (below-the-knee A-line skirt whose fallen hem I stapled, topped by a neon yellow polyester sweater) or boarded our bus with “Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child Jesus” emblazoned on its side.
And the boy factor–the lack thereof–was infuriating to all us girls. How were we supposed to learn to function around them? Boys were a necessary part of life, weren’t they? Better to learn to interact with them sooner rather than later, right?
According to an article by the CRC Health Group, recent studies show that girls especially benefit from attending single-sex high schools::
Girls are more able to participate in class discussions since there aren’t boys around to dominate as in co-educational schools. Girls become more confident in themselves as students and earn higher scores on their College Board and Advanced Placement examinations.
Girls carry these benefits into their college careers. States the CRC Health Group article, an extended study of sexism in classrooms found that “girls stay confident and learn more in single sex schools – ‘where girls are the players, not the audience.’”
My own high school experiences uphold these findings. The handful of nuns who taught at my school were from the Holy Child Order, a fiercely intellectual bunch who considered themselves the nun-equivalents of Jesuit priests. No way were they going to let us embrace the sexualized comfort of the Catholic school girl stereotype.
Our course work was extensive and challenging. We analyzed authors from Flannery O’Connor to Eugene Ionesco to Samuel Beckett. We took AP everything: history, chemistry, English, calculus, bio (though I didn’t relish cutting up a cat). We wrote more in one year than I did in my entire college career. Even our religion classes were hard-core, teaching us to treat the Bible as a literary text, to question its dictates and premises in light of its historical context.
And we were expected to speak up, to debate with all the rigorous intellectual tools ingrained in us by our highly gifted teaching staff, a mix of nuns and laypeople, male and female. Our discussions were usually loud, sometimes unruly, girls talking over each other trying to better illuminate their positions.
It never occurred to us to shut up. It never occurred to us that we might be ignored or taken less seriously than anyone.
I carried this confidence with me throughout college and law school. I was ferociously opinionated. I relished a good debate. I was often the loudest voice in the room.
Then I became a lawyer.
Specifically, I became a corporate entertainment lawyer, negotiating and documenting deals. I had attended Ivy League universities, so you’d think that my intellectual abilities wouldn’t be in question. But I was young, having gone straight from college to law school. And I was female.
A young, pretty, sweet female.
During my first year of practice, whenever our firm met with clients, I was usually the only woman in the room. I often got sent to make copies or fetch coffee. None of the male associates ever got asked. Just me or one of the female assistants.
Finally, one day, when a client started detailing exactly how much cream he wanted, I interrupted him. “I’m happy to get you coffee,” I said, “if you don’t mind being billed $175 an hour for me to do it.”
He didn’t ask me to get him coffee again, though he did keep asking for me to work on his deals.
Even so, I got patted on the head a lot. I had some great bosses, male and female, who respected my opinion, even asked for it, but I also had male bosses, peers, even potential employers, who assumed I could be bullied into silence because I was a woman whose ideas and abilities couldn’t possibly rival theirs.
I was still an effective advocate. I could still argue my way out of a paper bag. I could match agents scream for scream in a negotiation if I had to (though my style was always more conciliatory than bullying).
But when the CEO of a big production company told me during a job interview that I probably wouldn’t progress too far in his company because eventually I would settle down and have kids and be a housewife, I didn’t tell him that he was an asshole. Instead, I found myself smiling and keeping my mouth shut.
When I mentioned to another interviewer over lunch that I had a twin sister and he smirked and said, “I’ll bet a lot of men fantasize about that,” I resisted the urge to fork him in the eye and cordially finished our meal (though I turned down the job).
Whenever I encountered men in the entertainment business who assumed my gender made me lesser-than, I found myself saying less, doubting myself more, which in turn affirmed their opinion: she isn’t assertive enough; she doesn’t know what she’s doing.
After I finally ditched law to attend graduate school for an MFA in writing, I figured I was leaving that world behind, a world that doubted my ability to speak my mind.
And largely, I did. I was surrounded by wildly talented writers, male and female, who couldn’t wait to discuss literature and compare ass-in-the-chair time (i.e., the number of hours we spent writing per day).
Which is why I was shocked by an experience I had in my final year of graduate school. I was in a workshop composed of three female students, including me, and about ten male students. None of us women were shrinking violets. We were known to debate passionately, to defend our positions rigorously. And the guys were great, individually: liberal, supportive, open-minded.
But somehow, over the course of the class, the group dynamic took a dick-measuring, disastrous turn.
Every time I or another woman voiced her opinion, the conversation would pause for a second and then continue as if no one had spoken. Minutes later, one of the men would mention the very same point, except he would attribute it to another man in the class.
Every. Single. Time.
Then, one night, about midway through the semester, we went out after workshop to drink and play pool. One of the guys asked why the women never spoke in our class. He wasn’t trying to be nasty. He was genuinely concerned.
I wanted to bitch slap him with a pool cue.
“We speak,” I said. “You guys just don’t listen.”
Though, by that point, we women had pretty much stopped talking during workshop. Why bother, when we weren’t being heard? Which wasn’t exactly true. As a friend of mine put it recently when I told her the story, the men did listen to our words; they just appropriated them for themselves.
Our voices–those, they didn’t hear.
So we women gave up and got quiet.
I don’t look back on that incident and feel sorry for us women, nor am I angry at the guys. A group dynamic requires the tolerance of the entire group in order to prevail. We women chose to be quiet. We just wanted to get through that class. Silence was the path of least resistance.
It was the last time I chose that path.
I’m older now and less tolerant of everything, especially stereotypes foisted upon me or anyone else that are based on gender, race, age, disability, sexuality.
I’m keenly aware that I’m approaching the downside of middle age. If I don’t speak my mind now, if I don’t help create an environment that presupposes women should speak volubly and be heard, if I don’t present myself as an example of what women can accomplish if they’re unafraid of the backlash that might come from speaking their mind, then the backlash will always exist. The stereotypes will win.
That’s not the kind of world I want to live in. Nor does it have to be.
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