If I say something about math or stats or programming, I can look forward to getting well-actually-ed by a guy. This is especially common on the internet but happens rather often in non-screen mediated interactions, too. It seems that if I don’t copy my point straight out of a textbook, it’s so wrong they must immediately correct me. Any ambiguity or incompleteness or even casualness in what I say is interpreted as incompetence or ignorance. Even if I do copy something straight out of a textbook, they think I left something important out or neglected some essential nuance.
The default is to assume I don’t know what I’m talking about. The reflex is to show they already knew what I was saying, that they know more than me. This makes it exhausting and stressful to participate in many conversations. It can feel like every interaction is an exam full of trick questions.
The situation I find most demoralizing is when men act like they’re acknowledging my expertise and then dismiss it or criticize it. I once had a colleague who asked me a lot of questions about programming and statistics. This is an example of a typical interaction:
Him: Hey! Why is my [statistic] greater than one? That seems weird.
Me: Huh, [statistic] represents a probability, which can’t be greater than one. That’s definitely weird. What kind of test are you doing?
Him: Well, actually, [statistic] can be larger than one when you’re doing [test].
Me: [Gently explains why probabilities can’t be greater than one.] In this case, [statistic] greater than one means you’ve likely misspecified [model aspect] since [mechanism].
Him: [Spends 5 minutes heatedly “explaining” that not only can probabilities be greater than one, but his statistic doesn’t really represent a probability, and also that it makes sense to have a probability greater than one because of the vagaries of his particular dataset.]
I knew I was right. I knew he was spouting nonsense. I still spent half an hour reading about [test] and [statistic] to reassure myself.
That wasn’t an unusual interaction to have with him, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I stopped interacting with him any more than necessary. I’d already had conversations with this colleague about other, more egregious, sexist behaviour. Based on his response, I couldn’t see the point of pushing on this issue. I started avoiding my colleague so he couldn’t interrupt my work with conversations that made me doubt my knowledge and ability. This isolated me from my other colleagues.
I’m writing about this today because I recently said something on the internet about statistics and got well-actually-ed. It wasn’t even a technical comment, just an anecdote about how the way I initially learned something impeded a deeper understanding of that topic for a long time. The next commenter interpreted me not fully explaining that topic in my anecdote as me still not fully understanding it and proceeded to detail the topic and what he felt I should know about it.
I usually avoid commenting on many of the things I’m interested in like I avoid that colleague because I seem to be well-actually-ed nearly every time I dare to speak on topics where “women don’t belong,” and it feels terrible. But I felt like the community I was commenting in was a good one and that I wasn’t really making a technical point, so it would be ok. The well-actually wasn’t particularly rude or insulting. I probably wouldn’t have even noticed if it hadn’t happened countless times before. But it has, and after being hit in that same spot so many times, I’m pretty sensitive to it. I probably won’t comment again for a long while.
I am a woman. Men do this to me. I watch men do this to other women. We get hurt, we get defensive, we question our abilities, we get tired, we get angry, we leave.
If you’re wondering where the women are in your community, look for this dynamic and squash it.