Female Performance Anxiety?

Female Performance Anxiety? July 18, 2009

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?

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