On being an alpha female, part 2
Almost a year ago now I wrote this post on being an alpha female. I had only recently understood that I was an alpha female, when I wrote it, and it was still kind of new and weird.
For whatever reason it’s been coming up a lot recently and I wanted to update that post with my observations.
Who’s burning which bridges?
Last week I wrote an outraged post about seeing Ina Drew at Barnard.
Mind you, I had anticipated I’d find the event objectionable. I had even polled my Occupy friends for prepared questions for her. But when I got there I realized pretty quickly that I wouldn’t be able to ask her anything. I was just too disgusted with the tone and conceit of the event to participate in it reasonably. Instead I live tweeted the event and seethed.
I lost sleep that night fuming about Drew-as-role-model, and I was grateful to be able to get some of my frustration out on my blog.
One of the first comments I received was this one, which said:
Boy Cathy, you sure do know how to burn bridges.
This was, for me, kind of a perfect alpha female moment. My immediate reaction was to think to myself,
They burned bridges with me, you mean.
Since that sounded too arrogant, at the moment anyway, I said something else just slightly less obnoxious. Three points to make here:
- Anyone who doesn’t agree with me about whether Ina Drew should be celebrated can go suck it.
- That post got linked to from Reuters, FT.com, and Naked Capitalism. Which doesn’t happen when you’re worrying about burning bridges.
- When I’m in a certain kind of mood, I’m simply not concerned with other people’s judgments. I think that’s just part of being an alpha female, and I’m grateful for it.
Why grateful? Because lots of shitty things happen when people go around worrying about “burning their bridges” instead of speaking up about bullshit or evil-doing. Or, as Felix Salmon tweeted recently:
Best point made on this #waronwhistleblowers panel: failure to leak has cost many more lives than leaking ever has.
— felix salmon (@felixsalmon) April 17, 2013
Taking notes from an uber alpha female
A few months ago I got an email inviting me to speak in a Python in Finance conference. The email was somewhat weird and kind of just came out and said they need women speakers. I was put in a position of being asked to be a token woman, which is a mindset I don’t enjoy.
I thought about it though, and although I use python, and I used to work in finance, I don’t work in finance any more, and I don’t really think about python too much, I just use it. So I said to the organizer, no thanks, I don’t have anything to say at that conference.
Fast forward to the week before the conference, when I got wind of the agenda. It turned out my friend Claudia Perlich, Chief Data Scientist at m6d and one of the contributors to my upcoming book with Rachel Schutt, was the keynote speaker. I decided to go to the conference essentially because I wanted to see her.
Well, it turned out Claudia had gotten a similar email, and she had accepted the invitation, even though she doesn’t work in finance and doesn’t even use python (she uses perl).
She gave a great talk about modeling blind spots, which everyone enjoyed. It was quite possibly the best talk of the day, in fact. Plus, she wasn’t at all token - having her on the schedule was what made me come to the conference, and I probably wasn’t the only one. And judging by the crowd at the Meetup I gave last night, I would have drawn my own crowd too, if I had been speaking.
I made an alpha female note to myself that day to accept any invitation to a conference that I’d enjoy, even if my expertise isn’t completely within the realm of the conference. I’m learning from Claudia, a master alpha female. Or is it mistress?
Alpha females and self-image
Chris Wiggins recently sent me this essay entitled “A Rant on Women” by Clay Shirky, a writer and professor who studies the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. Here’s the first paragraph:
So I get email from a good former student, applying for a job and asking for a recommendation. “Sure”, I say, “Tell me what you think I should say.” I then get a draft letter back in which the student has described their work and fitness for the job in terms so superlative it would make an Assistant Brand Manager blush.
Guess what? That student is male.
Shirky goes on to vent about how women don’t oversell themselves enough compared to men and how it’s a problem. An excerpt:
There is no upper limit to the risks men are willing to take in order to succeed, and if there is an upper limit for women, they will succeed less. They will also end up in jail less, but I don’t think we get the rewards without the risks.
This made me think about my experience. First, as a Barnard professor, I certainly saw this effect. I’d have men and women come talk to me about letters of recommendations, and not only would I prepare myself for the difference in posture, I’d try to address it directly, by encouraging women to learn how to brag about their accomplishments. I might have tried to convince men a couple of times to stop bragging quite so much, but quickly found that to be a huge waste of time.
But beyond corroborating that this is typical behavior, the essay made me remember myself as a college student.
When I met my thesis advisor, Barry Mazur, who was on sabbatical at UC Berkeley, I remember telling him a math problem I had worked on and solved. He expressed something about liking the problem and being impressed that I’d explained it so well, and I said back,
“Yeah, I’m awesome”
I remember this because of his reaction. At the time, the word “awesome” was widely used among teenagers, but evidently he hadn’t gotten the teenager memo, and he was taken aback by the way I used it. At least that’s what he said. But now that I think about it, maybe he was taken aback that I’d said it at all.
Alpha females and body image
My friend and guest poster Becky recently sent me this video:
It’s about how women have a biased view on their looks, or at least describe their looks to other people in a consistently negatively biased way.
There’s a great critique of this video here (hat tip Avani Patel), wherein fashion and style guru Jennifer Choy complains that the underlying message to the above video is that, in any case, beauty is about all women have going for them, so they should not underestimate their beauty. Plus that all the women in the video were skinny, young, and white.
Great points, but my take was somewhat different.
My immediate reaction to the video was to say, these women need to spend less time thinking about being fat or ugly, and more time thinking about what they think is sexy and attractive. Why is it always about finding flaws in ourselves? Why don’t we spend more time thinking about what turns us on or what we think is beautiful?
I’ll be honest: I think if I had been interviewed in that setting, I would have said something like, “Gorgeous and sexy as hell” and gone on to list my best features. I am not sure I’d have even been able to describe what I look like in any detail, with any accuracy. Most likely I would have just started bragging about my sexy grey streaks. Even more likely: I wouldn’t have had the time to sit down for this interview at all.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve dabbled in being insecure in my looks: puberty sucked, as did all three post-natal periods until the baby was weaned*, in addition to any time I was ever on the pill**. I’ve concluded that my inherent arrogance is directly related to my hormones, which in turn makes it undeniably tied to my alpha femaleness.
Suffice it to say, when my hormones are not messed up I have “body eumorphia,” where I ignore or downplay any non-perfect parts of my body. It’s a nice feeling.
It kind of makes me want to develop an alpha female hormone treatment. Business model?
UPDATE: Please watch this new spoof video, it’s perfect (except it should be alpha females and men, not just men):
* It gets better when you know it’s going to go away. By the third kid I was like, “gonna cry every day at 3:00pm for the next six weeks. Must schedule that into my calendar.”
** Note to doctors: you need to tell women that the real reason birth control pills work so well is that you lose interest in sex when you’re on them!