On being a woman who takes up space

  Photo by  Diana Simumpande

I first published this article in 2015. Given everything that's happened since then--the 2016 election, the Women's March, the #MeToo movement and above all, the many ways that women today are boldly and courageously taking up space--I thought it was an opportune time to share it again. I hope you enjoy it.

In the midst of a conversation with a good friend a few weeks ago, I caught myself saying a strange thing. I don’t remember the exact topic of discussion, but I do recall that it had something to do with sexism in the tech industry and the ways that people tend to underestimate women.

At one point I said, rather without thinking, “I like to be underestimated.”

“I know you do,” said my friend with surprising earnestness. “I’ve seen you downplay your achievements many times.”

I smiled subversively and went on to say something about underpromising, overdelivering, and the pleasure of proving people incorrect in their estimations. But my offhand assertion has stuck with me since then, mostly because I’ve realized it isn’t true.

I don’t particularly like to be underestimated by other people, especially on account of my gender; in fact, it rankles me something fierce.

But… there’s always a but…

For a certain kind of woman, a woman like me, perhaps, who has done well for herself but not quite as well as many of her male peers, despite being just as (if not more, let’s be honest) capable and intelligent, it can be a kind of refuge, this underestimation.

No one gets criticized too badly for keeping her head down, being a good worker bee and tending invisibly to the shadows of someone else’s space.

On the other hand, the costs of daring for greatness (however one chooses to define it for oneself) are high. Enough has already been written about the price that women pay, simply for claiming their worthiness to occupy certain spaces, that I feel no need to say more about it here.

Suffice to say that many women find the price of taking up space, or the fear of paying it, high enough to choose invisibility instead.

So did I, for a time. If I stayed invisible, the reasoning went, then perhaps I might be safe. Perhaps I might be spared the trolling, the personal attacks, the offhand dismissals, the double standards, the pain of being rejected and objectified before I could even be heard.

If this is the price of occupying spaces of greatness, is it any wonder that so many women choose to make excuses for their brilliance and to hide their true potential, sometimes even from themselves?

Which brings me back to this discussion with my friend, this lie I told myself that I did not even know was a lie. “I like to be underestimated.”

It got me thinking. What if I stopped playing the underestimation game? What if, instead of downplaying my achievements and graciously deflecting praise, I could just as graciously accept high esteem when it was given — no —when it was earned? What great heights might I obtain if I allowed myself to believe these high estimations, to rise and meet them, perhaps even to transcend them?

What if I decided to be a woman who takes up space?

As I began to think this through, I realized that I had indeed earned high esteem, many times, from many different people and for many different reasons. Yet somehow I still didn’t believe that I was worthy to occupy that space reserved for greatness, reserved (all too often) for people who rarely looked or thought like me.

Sadly, my experience is a common one. I have yet to meet a brilliant, capable woman who has never questioned her brilliance, who has never been shut down when she should have been lifted up, who has learned, first, to doubt herself and her own worthiness because too many others have doubted her, called her crazy, emotional, on her period, frigid, bitchy, or any of the other hundred thousand insults we use to diminish women who dare to take up space, to believe they might be great.

When I was in middle school, I wanted so badly to be invisible. I wanted it more than almost anything else. The only thing I wanted more than invisibility was to be seen and accepted just as I was. But for a shy, chubby and bookish 7th grade girl, such a thing was unimaginable. To take up space was to be bullied, teased and rejected, so I settled for invisibility instead.

But 31 years is long enough. Now I have finished with all that.

Now, I’ll take greatness.