Hiding a woman’s light

This morning on Twitter Louise Mensch posted a question she was asked in a GQ interview “do women have a hard time describing themselves as successful or doing well? Is the instinct always self-deprecate? Does society demand it?”  The question wasn’t included in the published article, so I’m not sure what answer Louise Mensch gave, but it set me thinking.

A few years back I failed in a big way, and ended up off work with depression and eventually quitting teaching. I talked about this reasonably openly and received a lot of support and understanding.

Now, I’ve sorted myself out and I’m doing a course in Information Management so I can launch a new career. I’m doing really well on my course, not just a bit well, but Distinction level so far, but this is the first place I’ve shared that information. I’ve not even told other people on my course how well I’m doing. A few know about individual essays, but I don’t think anyone outside my immediate family (until now) knows I’ve been consistently excellent.

So why is that? Is it that I’ve been brought up not to shout about my achievements? Is it fear of failure that people will expect more of me and if I don’t maintain standards then I’ll look foolish? Is it that I don’t want to stand out as trying too hard or being the teacher’s pet? Why was it easier to talk about the failure? Was it easier for other people, and me, to accept that the busy mum of three is a failure rather than a success?

I do know that when I write my CV I have to get my husband in to play-up my achievements. He will suggest words and phrases to describe things I’ve done that I will argue with saying “it wasn’t that good, or important”. And I certainly know that he deals with criticism of his ideas and way of doing things much better than I do.  He has much more confidence that what he is doing is right and will ultimately be successful and he is not afraid to argue that point to others.  I am full of self doubt.

But is it a female issue? Maybe it is just different character traits and perhaps it is just as hard for men to celebrate success. Louise Mensch’s uber example of someone who celebrates their success, Piers Morgan, certainly attracts a good number of haters too.

For myself, I think it stretches back to childhood and being bullied for being clever (as well as wearing glasses and not being very confident socially). As a teacher it is clear to see that children can be incredibly negative about successful children, and it is really hard work to promote a positive, success driven culture in a school. So perhaps it’s a British thing inculcated into us at home.

I asked my children for their views. My 13 year old son said he didn’t feel he had to hide his success at school. He felt success was celebrated and he had learnt to value himself and ignore people who put him down. My daughter said she wouldn’t shout about her success for fear of being called a swat. She’s still at primary so I asked if my son thought things would improve at high school, as they had for him. He suspected they wouldn’t and both agreed it was harder for girls to be seen to be successful, although they couldn’t put their finger on why.

So what does this mean for my future? I’m filled with plans and ambition to be a leader and change things in the information world, but I’m also filled with dread of failure and of having to fight my position and shout about my success and strengths. I’m tempted to fall back into easy, safe roles where I can keep my head down and keep my light hidden, apologising for any good ideas and saying they must be down to someone else; something I find I do frighteningly often. What sort of example does that set to my daughter?

It seems feminism still has a long way to go. Jon Snow tonight tweeted about the novelty of women such as Merkel and Legarde being powerful in Europe. Until people are judged on their words and actions and not on their gender then I suspect it will always be difficult for women to be anything other than apologetic about their successes, without being seen as strange or unusual.

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