When my son was a little baby, I often spoke with my friend Berta about mothering, since we both were new at that. One day, we were talking about how difficult it is to change habits, and she said, “If my daughter is afraid of a particular stuffed animal, I’m not going to show it to her because I don’t want her to be scared and cry.”
She was trying to create the conditions for her daughter to live free from fear.
I suggested a different approach: to show the baby that the stuffed animal was harmless. Following this approach with different things in life, she’d eventually be free from fear as she’d be able to discern which elements could potentially harm her. She’d be more realistic and rational in what to be afraid of.
The other night I got a phone call from my son’s 7th grade Pre-Algebra teacher. She was upset because some boys were calling her sexist. The reason, she scolds them when they shout out answers or talk in class, but she doesn’t do the same with the girls. According to my son, she usually spends more time helping girls than helping boys and is far more lenient with girls than with boys.
What the teacher is trying to do, as she told me, is to create the conditions for the girls to succeed in the classroom. As a math teacher, she’s well aware of the low numbers of women in STEM careers and the stereotype threat that looms over girls’ math performance. And she’s doing what she thinks is good for them.
While I understand where she’s coming from and appreciate her effort, I think that’s the wrong approach–as are all the initiatives that try to “create the conditions” for women in male-dominated work environments.
The fact that men are more assertive than women is like a gravity problem: it can’t be solved by creating the right conditions or changing them. Humans didn’t create gravity on the Moon before going there. Instead, they learned to adapt themselves to the conditions of the Moon–with tools and personal practice.
Trying to change the condition that makes men assertive in work or education environments is unrealistic and puts women in a disadvantaged position–what if men don’t want to shed their assertiveness*?
When people are free from the need of being liked and the fear of being criticized, rejected or called names, they’re assertive. They don’t fear to make mistakes, don’t mind saying, “I don’t know,” and don’t worry about sounding silly when asking the questions they want an answer to. Assertive people reclaim their space and time.
Why don’t we train women to be as assertive as men are, giving them tools and helping them practice?
* Sexual harassment is wrong and whoever does it to others has to stop doing it. Women are more often the victims of sexual harassment, a fact that puts them at an unfair disadvantage in work or education environments.
Sandra Bullock in the movie Gravity.