Thursday, July 30, 2009

On Trying Not To Be Such a Stereotype

It is my personal experience that the enviro-field is pretty sex-segregated. On the one hand, you have a lot of women involved in personal environmentalism, the food movement, environmental education, and environmental safety and health of children.

On the other hand, environmental policy and climate science tend to be dominated by men.

I'm interested in both. I try and practice personal environmentalism, but professionally, I'd like to do policy work. Of course the work I'm interested in is more related to environment and international development, which is actually a little less sex-segregated, but even then I can sometimes find myself the lone woman in a room full of men.

This is a pretty novel experience for me. There are a lot of problems with the television industry, but it's not an industry dominated by men. There are women in high levels of power throughout the industry. There are reasonable numbers of senior agents who are women, and there are even more high level women executives within the television networks and studios.

So, this switching fields has taken a little getting used to. And one of the things that I've noticed, repeatedly, is that I sometimes find myself insecure about my knowledge base.

Look, I know I'm smart. And I know that I know a lot. But you can't know everything about all things environment, and I've only been involved in environmental affairs for a couple of years. So often, if I get in a discussion about a subject that I don't consider myself an expert on, I find myself ceding ground to the other party. I mean, what do I know? I don't, really. I don't have a PhD. There are a lot of articles I haven't read. I don't know every idea.

I also assume that other people know more than I do a lot of the time.

But I've noticed that a lot of the men I've conversed with don't shy away from discussing things that they don't know much about. They seem more authoritative and confident, and yet, after a ten minute conversation it becomes clear that they don't know more about the subject than I do.

I've found myself falling into the trap of thinking that I should just keep my thoughts to myself until I've read more, studied more, worked more. I doubt myself and my abilities more than I ever had before.

I know some of this is grad school and the fact that I'm really being challenged, that I'm surrounded by so many brilliant people. But I also never feel this self-doubt when I'm talking to a group of really brilliant women.

I've read enough feminist studies to know that I'm not unique in my feelings of doubt and insecurity. I know that I can't let my insecurities stop me from speaking up; I know that I have to keep pushing myself and believing myself even if I am the sole woman in a room with fifteen other men. But it's easier said than done.


Joyce said...

Ruchi, keeping your own counsel when you don't know something is WISE. Who wants to listen to some blowhard who won't admit he doesn't really understand what he's talking about? I hope you rise to the top in your profession, but hopefully not by falling into that trap.

ruchi said...

Joyce, I agree, but I also think it's about finding balance. It's one thing not to talk about something I know very little about, and it's another not to talk about something because I don't know EVERYTHING about it. I'm never going to know *everything* about a subject, but that doesn't mean I should never speak up.

Farmer's Daughter said...

I'm used to the sex-segregation, since I work in science. However, my area of science (biology/env. sci.) tends to have a lot more women than say physics. But I also love physics and have been known to discuss the possibility of time travel with the boys.

I've found that it's easy to determine if someone knows what they're talking about. I, too, have observed men (and women, but more often men) going on and on about a topic, but once I throw out some vocabulary, it's clear they don't know what I mean. For example, in a discussion about populations, a man in my grad class was talking about how the fertility rate in some country had gone from 9 to 7, and that was a good sign the population was decreasing. I objected that 7 is far from replacement level, let alone below it to cause a decrease in population, and that with the momentum it would continue to rise even so. He stared at me blankly, which was my signal that he could no longer debate since he had no freaking clue what I said.

There's nothing wrong with having confidence in yourself to actually see if someone does know what they're talking about. At the same time, it's important to acknowledge that a topic is outside your area of expertise. But don't assume other people know more than you, even if they do have a Ph.D.

Personally, I hate the politics but love the science. However, I realize that so many people active in politics have not a clue about science, so I've been making more of an effort to get involved in potitics and write letters to my reps explaining the science behind things like food safety. Who knows if they listen to me or not, but it's better than assuming they know more than I do.

Sam said...

Nearly all my interests professionally and personally are dominated by men. I am very quiet and reserved by nature so not talking isn't a big effort for me. But I also don't hesitate to correct someone if I feel the need to.
What I've noticed is that many people tend to inflate my intelligence to greater lengths than I would, simply because I sit quietly and listen intently.

I had some point...but now have forgotten what that was.

Scully96 said...

Ruchi, you are commonly respected as one of the smartest people we know because you have the courage to speak about matters you may still be learning and formulating opinions about, and are not too cocky to assume you know everything there is to know, or that is worth knowing. But what you do know and the way in which you have come to understand is such a refreshing and special voice, even if you cannot always see that.

I understand the vast amount of knowledge and information you are encountering in grad school has to be staggering, humbling, and at times, silencing, but I hope that as you move forward from school into the work force again, you'll regain that confidence. Because what you have to say is worth saying and worth being heard. You don't have to be THE only voice on a matter, but your voice is an important one.

(I miss you.) --Ms. V.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

I agree with Farmer's Daughter, a PhD is not a guarantee of anything! I should know, I have one, and I don't know anywhere near as much about anywhere near as many things as I would like.

In such a situation, how about asking questions? Even if you don't know as much as you'd like about the topic, asking an intelligent and insightful question would/should prove that you have earned the right to take part in the discussion as an equal.

Of course, some environments are more friendly towards questions than others.

belinda said...

Hi Ruchi,

It really is a hard line to walk.. I have a female friend that is going through a science PHD and she is at the point where she will try and be an expert on pretty much every subject put forward if it has some type of science base.

Although I agree that you can't know everything about a subject.. knowing where your limitations are and being willing to say that you don't feel you have enough knowledge in that area is really important and is something that the system really discourages.

Kind Regards

Anonymous said...

knutty knitter said...

I always work from the principle that everyone is equal. Knowledge takes many forms and any discussion worth its salt will acknowledge this regardless of who you are.

The fields I joined were all male so I got used to just being part of things regardless. Your generation has it much easier from that perspective so get in there with the best of them :) and do what I never got the chance to.

viv in nz

viv in nz

The bean-mom said...

I've also noticed more guys than women (WAY more) blathering on authoritatively about something they know nothing about.

And just to chime in with Cath--a Ph.D. is no guarantee of anything. At my institute, I would put the scientific judgement of several bachelors' degree holding techs above the judgement of a number of Ph.Ds here.

Lee said...

I don't usually read your blog, but with such good posts, I think I might be in the future! A friend shared this one with me in Google Reader.


Don't get me started on PhDs and degrees.

I've got a few degrees in various areas, and am an expert in one area, and one thing I've discovered is, the people who really ARE experts understand how little they know. It's the idiots at the bottom of the pile who wax lyrical about their own achievements and abilities.

The most talented friends I have are very modest. One friend has just won a high status scholarship to Cambridge, and I didn't even know she'd won it!

Saying that, I do think women are underrepresented in a lot of fields at the top, and I also notice the lack of female experts and speakers in the environmental area.

I also notice the move pushing women back into the housewife role, cleverly marketed under the guise "simple living", and often pushed by females themselves who have been unsuccessful in their careers. So often we're our own worst enemies.

We need women at the top, vocal women who are seen as experts although environmental science is a science in its infancy. And we certainly don't need any sort of move pushing women back into the home. We've just spent the last hundred years doing our best to obtain suffrage!

What is needed is balance of both genders.

In your case, you're clearly a woman who knows what she is talking about. The key doesn't seem to be understanding or knowledge, just self-confidence and the ability to market yourself. I know - I suffer the same problem as a singer!

All I can say is the state of affairs won't change if we back down and go back into the kitchens with frilly aprons, afraid to tackle any part of the green movement apart from those relating to housework and the domain of the hausfrau.

In short, we need intelligent women unafraid to speak out and take a few knocks.

Just my (rather long) 2c as a feminist greenie!