Friday, February 15, 2008

You're Too Pretty to be Smart

A couple of days ago, I wrote about how a man told me I could never be President when I was a kid. Well, yesterday on the drive to Sesame Street Live, I thought of a couple more incidents in which I or a friend was told by an older man that our gender would be a stumbling block for us. I wonder how many other women in my generation have been told the same thing? I'm 34, so theoretically I should not face much in the way of sexism in the academic world or the workplace, right? Things are equal now, right?

The first incident was in high school. I was in AP English my senior year and my teacher, a man in his fifties, told me that I might have trouble being taken seriously in college because of my attractiveness. It was not a come-on or anything improper. I attended a highly regarded academic magnet school in Nashville. Our motto was "Hume-Fogg, Just a Bunch of Nerd Having Fun." I never felt any pressure to dumb myself down just because I was a girl. This environment expected you to be smart and encouraged it. This teacher was the best and most beloved teacher in the school. He made the statement to me in a private discussion about my college thoughts and he meant it as a warning. It was the first time that someone I respected gave me a warning like this and it made me think twice.

The second incident was in college. My freshman year, scared stiff by the Journalism School at Missouri, I toyed with the idea of majoring in Anthropology. It is a subject which has always interested me greatly and I loved the intro class I was taking. I went to talk to my professor about the field and career possibilities and he made essentially the same comment to me. I don't remember the wording, but he said that the field was dominated by men and as an attractive woman, I would have difficulty. He discouraged me and suggested an easier field.

So, I heard this message twice and it's not like I am a super-model or anything. I'm not some extraordinary beauty, but merely being attractive was perceived to be a problem by these men.

The other incident I thought of happened to one of my best friends, T., in college. She is a very pretty blond who also happens to be very smart. In a conversation with one of our history professors, she was told,"I'm not asking you to the prom or anything, but you are very attractive," and then he went on to warn her that her attractiveness could be a problem in graduate school.

I really believe that all three of these teachers meant well and only wanted to assist us in our academic pursuits and perhaps shield us from what we might have to face.

Well, thanks but no thanks, Daddy. They should not have said these things. In all three of these cases, we were absolutely qualified to pursue the course of action being discussed. Both of us had top-notch grades and test scores. These teachers could have said, "If this is your dream, go for it. You can achieve what you put your mind to." Instead, we were warned that our female qualities, something we can not control, would hold us back and therefore, we should think twice about continuing.

How often does this happen? How many young women hear this?
Let's hear the stories. Comment if you have ever been told something like this and if you know someone who has been told this, send them this link so they can leave their story. Pass it along. Let's see how many stories we get.

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