4 Ways I (Over)compensate for Being a Woman
Updated: Aug 31, 2020
By: Nafeesa Alibhai
1. Dress authoritatively, even when it isn’t in the dress code.
I study genetics, physiology, and neuroscience, and part of that schooling has taught me how to take advantage of the authority bias, which often means presenting in a more masculine way. If I wear a blazer instead of a t-shirt (or even a blazer atop a t-shirt) while delivering a review lecture to a class of students that are at most a year younger than I am, they’re more likely to trust what I say.
2. Indisputably know my shit, especially around men.
As I hinted above, I am a peer-tutor, which is essentially the undergrad equivalent of a Teacher’s Assistant (TA) at the University of British Columbia. To become a TA I had to prove my capabilities as an instructor. I did this by delivering my own review lecture, correctly answering hundreds of course questions during office hours, and through an online forum. Despite demonstrating my qualifications for the role I have still have people doubt my competence.
Two semesters ago, about halfway into the term, after I had proven my capabilities as an instructor I had a male student question my ability to re-explain a concept to him. After lecture, a queue of students usually forms at the front of the lecture hall, and while the professor works from the beginning to the end, I work the other way around, kind of like DNA polymerases. I approached the student, asking if I could answer his question, and he responded with “I don’t know, can you?” So he was either correcting my grammar, which I doubt given the assignments he had previously handed in, or didn’t believe that I could help him.
Now, this is completely anecdotal evidence, so it wouldn’t really stand up in a peer-reviewed paper (btw, what’s with that? Why do we undervalue the anecdote?), but I’ve noticed that throughout the years, I struggle more to prove my competence to men than women. Even when I dress well. As a result I have become determined to know my shit.
3. Lower my voice, change my gait, hold myself a bit more broadly
When I took Biochem over a year ago, my study group was composed of a bunch of gym bros. Some of us would walk to our next classes together and have casual chats. We got along pretty well.But once, a friend saw us all walking, and she later commented that I seemed totally different around this group of boys. My voice was deeper, I was using more “bro” language, I had my shoulders back, my arms slightly flexed, and my chin up. I don’t know if the gym bros noticed this change or if anything would have been different in our friendship had I not changed my behaviour. But I do know that I changed in response to them, and that I didn’t even notice. Now I’m more aware when it happens, and I try to do it less.
4. Use my interest in women as an “in”
The aforementioned gym bros often talked about the women they were dating or sleeping with. Initially, I stayed pretty silent during those conversations, but after I was asked about my relationship status, I joined in. The language I found myself using wasn’t respectful, and we began talking about being boob vs butt people and seeing if we could cross off different regions of the world based on the nationalities of the people with whom we had had sex. After a few of these conversations, plus my friend’s observation, I started hanging out with them less outside of class. It kind of sucks, but I didn’t have the emotional capacity to try to change the way they spoke.
There isn’t much of a lesson to be learned, here. This article is really just a short excerpt of my experience, with some reflection thrown in for fun. I don’t know how to change things just yet, but I’m aware of my own behaviour so hopefully that’s a step in the right direction.
I invite you to think about how you might also (over)compensate in your life when you are placed in certain social situations. Are you aware of it? How does the awareness make you feel? Is it unsettling? These questions might be interesting to ponder.