Female Performance Anxiety?

A week ago we pointed readers to a study that provided evidence women tend to psyche out when they think they are playing chess against men and perform worse than they are capable.

Here Laura Woodhouse from thefword.org shares her own anecdotes about underperforming at tasks when she is around men.   She finds herself suspecting, even without cause, that they are judging her and assuming her performance will not be up to snuff:

The crunch, however, is that even if I do try and get involved – learning to play poker with a group of guys, say – the sense that I am being judged because I’m female, that the men will automatically assume I am not going to be very good, or that they are more at ease in the situation because it is more likely that others will assume they are competent and know what they’re doing, dents my confidence and worries me to such an extent that I perform worse than I know I should be able to. This phenomenon even extends to activities that I am already good at; when a man is in my car and I’m trying to park I sometimes worry that he’s judging my parking and driving skills because the dominant narrative is that women are bad at driving and parking, and guess what? I end up scraping my alloys or turning the engine off when I’m half a metre from the kerb.

I’m not claiming that all or even most men genuinely do think that women are terrible at certain activities or that they really will judge us in a negative fashion – I can’t see into their minds – but I’ve had enough patronising ‘good catch!’ and ‘you’re actually really good at driving’ comments to know that the sexist socialisation that I’ve been subject to and affected by hasn’t left all men untouched and that, combined with the worries outlined above, is enough to set me on edge.

And her comments section indicates she’s far from alone as Julia’s anecdote indicates:

I’m a palaeontologist, which involves a lot of fieldwork. I assisted on an undergraduate fieldtrip, driving one of the minivans. Although there were three female drivers I was the only one who didn’t opt out as soon as they could, so I found myself “competing” with male drivers. Despite being a competent driver (I have never had a problem with manoeuvres), with all the other drivers watching I managed to burn out the clutch, earning myself the nickname of “Clutch Lady” for the whole fortnight.

I’m also fairly nimble on my feet and pretty good at bouldering. A 6-ft scramble would have been very little trouble for me if I’d been on my own or in a group of girls. But faced with two men offering a hand to help me up I stumbled, lost my footing and had to be hauled up. I beat myself up about it for the rest of the day, because I knew I should have been able to make the climb.

I don’t know if we’re so caught up in worrying about what the men might think that we fail to concentrate on our activity, or whether we subconsciously act how the men are expecting us to act. I am expected to be a bad driver because I am a woman. I am expected to not be able to scramble up a rock face because I am a woman.

As someone who was raised with a thoroughly egalitarian view of the sexes, I always find accounts like these surprising and dispiriting.  They always remind me of one of my friends who regularly got together with two of my close male friends and me.  There was never among us a remotely hostile intention towards her or anything said, either explicitly or implicitly that I can remember, that dealt with her being a woman at all, let alone being inferior in anyway for being a woman.  And she always struck me as liberated and feminist-conscious as any other literature major (which she was).  Then one day we were chatting about the relationship between the sexes and she confided that her whole life she felt that when in the company of men she should not speak—like it was wrong to do so.  I was simply flabbergasted.

Having both admired and been intimidated myself by many a woman in my day, I have a hard time believing that even more often my simply being a male presence may have had an intimidating affect on some women.  From experience it sounds ludicrous but one can only wonder what happens in other people’s minds.

Your Thoughts?  Your Experiences?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Lottie

    Sometimes it’s very small ways that women show that feel they should be inferior. Even though I am a confident woman, and comfortable in the presence of men, if I walk past a man I don’t know in the street I always look down at the pavement as I pass. And I know that a lot of women feel automatically inferior to men, even though they know rationally that they’re not. This was an interesting article, having this idea acknowledged by a man.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Lottie! These sorts of issues are the kinds I find the hardest to understand from women’s perspectives. I have ALWAYS assumed that a woman looking away as you describe was all about avoiding being hit-on, not feeling inferior. Or might the reflexive fear of acknowledgement/approach from strange men in passing be a combination of precisely those two things?

    • http://365hats.wordpress.com Lottie

      I think it depends on the woman, but a combination of the two seems likely. For me, I’m just avoiding male attention, whether it’s abuse or admiration. And if I *did* get attention, I’d be afraid that the male in question would just assume that either of those things was acceptable. I hope that makes sense – I think it’s so much built in to my brain that I have trouble translating!


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