Since I was a teenager I’ve had serious issues with being shown up in front of others. As a consistently top-of-the-class student I’ve always found it hard to deal with not being good at things (ah, woe is me, I know, I know!) and as a result I am very much loathe to try new activities as, obviously, I won’t be very good at them to start with. One thing that really compounds my fear of being shown up when trying something new is when I have to learn alongside or from men. As a girl, being told that I was as good as the boys at a sport or physical activity was the ultimate accolade – not surprising in a world where ‘you throw like a girl’ is an insult – and the tendency to compare myself to men has stuck with me as I’ve grown. Combine this with the general assumption that men are better at sport and physical activities, at driving, at map reading, you name it; with my feminist desire to prove this wrong and the conflicting desire to challenge the view that stereotypically ‘male’ activities are more worthy of praise and admiration than stereotypically ‘female’ activities; with the knowledge that individual women are often held up as representatives of our entire sex in a way that individual men are not, and it ends up seeming far more less stressful to simply refuse to try something new than to get involved and deal with the emotional strain of all this baggage.
The crunch, however, is that even if I do try and get involved – learning to play poker with a group of guys, say – the sense that I am being judged because I’m female, that the men will automatically assume I am not going to be very good, or that they are more at ease in the situation because it is more likely that others will assume they are competent and know what they’re doing, dents my confidence and worries me to such an extent that I perform worse than I know I should be able to. This phenomenon even extends to activities that I am already good at; when a man is in my car and I’m trying to park I sometimes worry that he’s judging my parking and driving skills because the dominant narrative is that women are bad at driving and parking, and guess what? I end up scraping my alloys or turning the engine off when I’m half a metre from the kerb.
I’m not claiming that all or even most men genuinely do think that women are terrible at certain activities or that they really will judge us in a negative fashion – I can’t see into their minds – but I’ve had enough patronising ‘good catch!’ and ‘you’re actually really good at driving’ comments to know that the sexist socialisation that I’ve been subject to and affected by hasn’t left all men untouched and that, combined with the worries outlined above, is enough to set me on edge.
With all this in mind, I was both interested and somewhat perversely reassured to read this study into female chess players which found that women chess players paired with men of a similar ability performed 50% worse in online games when they were aware that their opponent was male. When they (falsely) believed that they were playing against a woman they performed as well as their male opponents. The author suggests that this could be a result of ‘widely held gender stereotypes’, and points to her findings as part of the reason why women are under represented in the world of chess (they make up only 5% of tournament players and less than 1% of grandmasters).
This is only one specific, small-scale study, but it goes some way towards confirming my hunch that I’m not alone in this gender-related performance anxiety, that perhaps part of the reason why women are under represented in all sorts of areas despite the removal of sexist barriers to our participation is this fear of male judgement, the difficulty of performing in male-dominated spaces and activities and the negative effect this has upon our confidence.