Last night I was talking to a friend of mine about my teaching experiences, and what’s it’s like to be a woman in math and to be taken seriously. We were going over the standard stuff, that women are too self-effacing compared to men and tend not to strut their stuff enough. But then I remembered this story from my early teaching experiences that kind of put a different spin on that.
I was in grad school, and over the summer I went to Berkeley to teach at a women in math program, which was still called the “Mill’s program” even though it was being held at Berkeley. It was a really fun experience, something like 30 days of lecture and problem session, and I led the problem sessions.
It was some time in the second week when, one day because of something or other, I hadn’t prepared completely and I apologized to the class for being slightly unprepared. I said something like, “sorry I’m not completely prepared today”. I remember thinking that, in spite of that, the class went very well and there was no “damage” from my being unprepared. Every other day I was completely, perhaps overly prepared, and that was the only day I ever mentioned something about my preparedness.
At the end of the summer we got back teaching evaluations, and I remember that a full half of the evaluations described me as unprepared.
I made a promise to myself never ever to apologize for anything again. And I never have, and I’ve never been accused like that since. Which isn’t to say I pretend to be a perfect teacher, but there are subtle ways of dealing with imperfections (my favorite: turn a self-criticism into a flattery. Instead of saying, oh how stupid I am for not thinking of that, say oh how smart you are for thinking of that. Generosity is not a negative in my experience!).
Going back to last night, though, it’ a two-way street. Women may be too self-effacing, but other people (including women!) are absolutely too dismissive. It’s a very important thing to keep in mind when you are teaching or presenting.
One other thing, in a one-on-one, professional setting, I believe you can apologize and not be executed for it (sometimes and depending on the person), but in a teacher-students setting, or when you’re presenting to clients in business, or even when you’re presenting to colleagues, you’re giving a performance and need to be flawlessly confident.
In an ideal world, we would use this information to learn to become better audiences, to not be dismissive and overly harsh of self-effacing people, and I do try to keep this in mind when I’m in the audience. But it’s going to take lots of effort for this to happen on a large scale, especially among strangers. It’s a cultural axiom in a certain sense.
My advice to young people, especially women: never apologize.