It was when I was speaking with a man, who I have come to think of as a colleague (despite being in different fields) and friend, when I first realized I dumb myself down for men. Not on purpose, or even consciously. I was embarrassed to realize that with certain men, I instinctively try to seem less intelligent and strong than I am. I learned early on in my professional career that if I seem too knowledgeable or powerful, certain men dismiss me or try to diminish me (usually by offering some sexist compliment). I watch this happen to strong women all the time. It happens to me. That is, until I learned how to dumb myself down.
The trick is coming across as competent without seeming more competent than my male counterpart. Or smart. I need to demonstrate intelligence while making it clear that the man with whom I am speaking is smarter than I am.
Oh, and then there is the whole being attractive thing. As I became more aware of my subconscious manipulation in the competence and intelligence department, I noticed the attraction game. Men (again only certain men) ignore schlumpy women. They ignore heavy women. They ignore “butch” women. They do pay attention to stereotypically attractive women. Unless, (and here’s the game), a woman is too attractive. Once a woman tips over from the attractive into the too-attractive realm, she is no longer competent. Or intelligent. Height is part of this equation. It helps to be tall. But, not too tall. I lucked out here. I am 5’ 9”. Which means, as long as I don’t wear heels, I am tall enough to be seen as competent and intelligent, without being so tall that men (certain) will try to find ways I am not as competent or intelligent as I think I am.
How did I learn all of this? I was told. Right out. In my younger days, men told me that I was too pretty to be a professional. Men told me that I was “too pretty to try to be smart”. Men have asked me not to wear heels because then I am just “too tall and it makes [them] feel uncomfortable”. Men have asked me to wear make-up so I seem more professional. Men have asked me not to wear make-up because it makes me too attractive. Men have told me to stop “showing off.” Then when a male colleague says the exact same thing (word for word), he has been praised as clever.
Certain men. I really do mean only certain men. My husband is delighted when I wear heels (he’s also 5’9”), look attractive, and act smart. He finds my intelligence stimulating and interesting. He brags about how I run further and faster than him. I have a lot of male friends who enjoy debating with me and appreciate a good argument, even when I win. The male friend and colleague I mentioned earlier has always been a champion of mine (and not in a condescending way) specifically because he thinks I am intelligent. In fact, though he did not say it, I am pretty sure he thinks I am too intelligent to ever dumb myself down.
And yet, I do dumb myself down. I dumb myself down for “alpha males” and for insecure men who seem intimidated by me. The shameful conclusion to this self-discovery? Once I realized I did it, I started doing it on purpose. Often, these men are in a position of power or are the decision makers as to whether or not I get hired. I felt I had to keep playing the game.
So, why would I write a blog that might potentially be read by these very men, a blog that could result in the loss of revenue for my business? Because, I believe that these men deserve better. I believe they deserve a consultant who is her whole, powerful, intelligent self. I also trust them. I trust that if they know, if they realize what they are losing by dismissing and diminishing women who are stronger and more intelligent than them, or look different from what they want, they will stop.
So, please do.