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A question for women

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In the opening months of 2000, NBC Universal launched Oxygen, a new cable channel aimed at women. At the time, it aired a lot of syndicated reruns of television shows with female leads, such as Kate & Allie and Cybill, but also a lot of original programming.

Robin Epstein, a New York based writer, got a job as the head writer of one of those original shows. It was a quiz show called Clued In, in which the contestants were schoolgoing teenage girls.

She loved the idea of young women demonstrating to the world that they were knowledgeable, intelligent people, defying the stereotype of the ditzy teen girl. Part of her job was to write the questions the contestants would have to answer.

Epstein had heard about research suggesting that until the age of about eleven, girls and boys exhibit about the same inclination to raise their hands in class and answer the teacher’s questions. At age twelve or thirteen, girls tend to show a dramatic decrease in classroom studiousness. There was nothing to indicate that girls were less intelligent than boys, but it almost seems as if girls, at pre-teen age, begin to focus on not appearing smart or keen.

It was controversial view, and Epstein wanted to prove it wrong on national television.

That is not what happened. When the show aired, the questions weren’t particularly difficult for their grade levels, but the girls were getting very few of them right. This was very discouraging to Epstein — she felt that not only was she failing to show that these girls were as smart as anyone, but she was making them look dumb.

More of this story, and clips of the show itself, can be heard here on the long-running radio show This American Life. Host Ira Glass asks what she did when she realized the girls couldn’t answer most of the questions.

“You dumb down the questions,” Epstein said. “You give them things that anyone — anyone of any age, any mental capacity — could possibly answer.” 

As the show moved through the first episodes, instead of basic questions about American history and science, the host began to ask who could spell their own name backwards, or who could be the first contestant to run out into the audience and get a cute boy to autograph her arm.

Epstein had tried to make teenage girls appear as role models for other teenage girls, and — at least in the limited context of this particular show — found she was not able to do that. A cable quiz show is probably not the best medium for heralding the astuteness of teenagers, but it seems unlikely to me that there isn’t a bigger cultural force behind the dismal performances on Clued In.

The biggest influences in my adult life, at least on the level of one-to-one human interaction, have been women. For whatever reason, I learn more about myself from my relationships with women than with men. I’m aware how broadly I’m generalizing here, but in my experience they seem to be better listeners, and wiser people all around. But this may have more to do with the individuals I’ve known than differences between the sexes.

I always love This American Life, but I was particularly affected by this segment. If there is a cultural trend (at least in America’s schools) that encourages young women to avoid appearing smart, I was never aware of it, although the vapid tone of the girls in clips of the show sounds exactly like what I remember from high school. There seemed to be a competition among the girls to demonstrate who was more above it all, who cared the least about what they were supposed to care about. I don’t remember the boys putting on this affectation, but I hung out with the geeks and avoided the popular kids, so maybe my experience was atypical.

At all ages of my development I remember geeking out with other boys over anything that was at all neato, no matter what kind of dork-stigma was attached: bugs, computers, rock formations, historical figures, even math tricks. Seriously, math tricks. 

In the podcast they don’t speculate much about the possible reasons behind why the show backfired. But Epstein says that it seems that the girls seemed much more preoccupied with how they presented themselves than with what they actually did. Pressures related to appearance and body image among young women are well-documented and much-discussed, but this was the first time it was suggested to me that deliberately appearing not so smart (or at least not so interested) might be part of that.

Being a white, middle-class, anglophone male I have probably have the worst possible angle for seeing how mainstream cultural pressures negatively affect certain demographic groups. I’m also 32 years old, and I don’t know any teenage girls — and now that I think about it, I don’t think I really did when I was a teenage boy either. So I have no idea.

My question for female readers: Did you ever feel pressure, from friends or others, not to appear too smart, or at least to avoid appearing to have geek-level interests? Or is this game show a misleading anomaly?

One of my geek-level interests is in individuals who defy mainstream cultural pressures in order to do what they want with their lives, but it’s hard to know quite which pressures other people face if you don’t experience them yourself.  Tell me your experiences.

Listen to the podcast when you get a chance. I can’t put my finger on exactly why it disturbed me so much. I guess it was the thought that women are still being steered away from intellectual pursuits. Say it ain’t so.


Photo by flattop341

Samantha August 11, 2013 at 11:03 pm

i’m 26, and i cannot remember a time where i felt pressure, or the need, to dumb myself down. however, in high school and college i do remember my friends doing this, and i have spent most of my life watching my mother dumb herself down when she’s in a relationship. my parents got divorced when i was in the 5th grade. my younger sister and i were predominantly raised by my father. my whole life he has always taught us to be funny, intelligent, strong women, and that we should never change ourselves for men. i think having my father be such a positive force and constantly emphasize the need to always be myself – no matter how dorky/nerdy/goofy i may be – is the reason why i’ve never felt the need to hide my intelligence around others.

Megan August 11, 2013 at 11:26 pm

It was impressed upon me from an early age that appearance and presentation was important. I was dressed up like a doll from the earliest age in lace and pink ridiculous things from other time periods like bonnets and saddle shoes. My mother was disabled and some of my earliest memories are of taking care of her and my siblings. My existence as a teenager was insulated to say the least. While intelligence was promoted, it was never stressed above other virtues like grace in movement or the ability to carry a pleasant conversation if needed in social situations. I was taught to be an accessory to someone else and care for their needs above my own. As an adult, I still have problems putting myself before my loved ones, to my own detriment sometimes. Perhaps it is a by-product of my unique situation, but I think women and girls are taught from a VERY early age, by society and their families, to think of themselves as future caretakers. To think of themselves as future mothers. This social attitude is getting better and better as the years pass, but it’s still an issue that needs to be addressed in how we raise our daughters. I’d much rather someone had stressed the importance of independence and self-sufficiency than teaching me how to properly set a table and which fork goes with which course.

David August 12, 2013 at 5:55 pm

>Perhaps it is a by-product of my unique situation, but I think women and girls are taught from a VERY early age, by society and their families, to think of themselves as future caretakers.

This seems to be true and a lot of the anecdotes in the comments reflect that. I have heard so many women say that they have a problem doing things for themselves because they are so used to living for others. I always had trouble understanding that, either because I am a man and it was never stressed, or perhaps because I’m just selfish.

jonnel August 17, 2013 at 12:42 am

Exactly! My mom was a beautiful stay at home mom who just adored my father. She worried a lot about who I was going to marry. I was dressed up as a Bride for Halloween twice! I remember going to play tennis with a guy and she pulled me aside and said “Don’t beat him!” I realized many years later how marginalized I was in my family compared to my brother. All the chores I had to do, like cindafuckingrella, while he took out the trash! He was given the family business, too. Not that I wanted it; but someone could have at least asked or compensated me! But of course I married and was my husband’s responsibility. LOL. Luckily, I was a teenager in the late 60’s & 70’s, so the anti-establishment culture and the women’s movement saved me. But more needs to be done as Feminism still gets bad mouthed.

J August 11, 2013 at 11:32 pm

I’ve had experience with this. There’s a lot of societal pressure to be accommodating to male desires, which often seems to involve not being smarter than the boys are (I’m generalizing also) and also to please everyone in general all the time. Teen girls are both astute and vulnerable, read any teen magazine and it’s all about the importance of friends/popularity, looking cute and having a boyfriend.

As a 30-year-old woman I STILL am somewhat shaken when I’m told I’m “intimidating”, which always refers to intelligence, and I still see very intelligent friends dumbing themselves down for the sake of their male companions’ egos. It irritates me that I think of these women as savvy. It’s like how when you soundly beat a male (at any age, I’ve found) at some game, they often get shitty with you about it, with varying levels of subtlety. At some point our “don’t make waves” training kicks in and you just start letting him win. It sucks.

David August 12, 2013 at 5:59 pm

That sucks! I was always afraid of competition because I didn’t like to lose, but I’m not sure whether or not it was worse to lose to a girl. I think when it came to sports, maybe, if only because other boys were more likely to make fun of you for it.

Melissa August 19, 2013 at 1:32 am

“I was always afraid of competition because I didn’t like to lose, but I’m not sure whether or not it was worse to lose to a girl. I think when it came to sports, maybe, if only because other boys were more likely to make fun of you for it.”

So there you go, males have their fair share of gender-based bs to deal with as well. In this case, the “never lose to a girl” attitude that they grow up with – the boys will call you a “p—-y” etc. That then leads to the whole “guys hate it when you beat them at something” complaint from women. In my mind, it all goes both ways. Women have it rough in some ways, and men have it rough in others. Just like women have many advantages, and men have others. I no longer see things as men vs. women, or as a one-sided world view with women being total victims and totally hard done-by. It’s so much more complicated than that. Excuse my many many broad generalizations!

Crispy September 6, 2013 at 11:35 pm

the difference isn’t just that girls are more afraid to lose, it’s that they’re afraid of what happens when they win…

Jessica August 12, 2013 at 1:04 am

I don’t know if it is specifically related to being female, but I definitely have experience not letting my peers know how well I’ve done in school. While I know that good marks don’t mean that I’m smarter than anyone (just that I have the right skill set for school), it seems as though some people take it negatively if I’ve received a better mark than them.

Daniel August 12, 2013 at 1:18 am

To be smart shows that you are studious with education e.g. to listen to your parents, listen to teachers, to do your homework – in other words – to follow orders. It’s not cool, because there is no rebellion.

Not just women, but a lot of men who are smarter than their peers feel like they don’t belong, like they won’t be accepted. Maybe it has something to do with that?

David August 12, 2013 at 6:01 pm

>Not just women, but a lot of men who are smarter than their peers feel like they don’t belong, like they won’t be accepted. Maybe it has something to do with that?

This is interesting and I know I have felt like that. It doesn’t always feel so great to stand out, even if you stand out for positive reasons. I know I dumbed down my speaking style in grade school so that teachers stopped expecting more out of me than other kids.

iida August 26, 2013 at 1:11 am

Exactly. Very well put. I did an interesting journey in my schoolyears. First 5 grades I was myself: smart, responsive, sincere. I became heavily bullied by other girls. So I changed school. 6-8 grade I decided to fit in and “dumb myself”…it kinda worked out, i did fit in..yet i was not able to dumb myself…cause i just was too smart and i still got good grades..i just learned how not to make big deal about it, how to still be rebellious against the system (and hell..the system IS faulty..and teacher are no saints..so you don’t really have to pretend anything..). But to fit in, my manner of speaking, acting, dressing and even what kind of music i listend to, changed. I didn’t put up with it for very long, though and by the 10th grade I was totally “off system…any kind of system”. I changed schools, changed friends, started the long journey back to myself again. But I turned into a fenomenon..i was someone who simply got good grades very easily and effortlesly…was always considered smart…but was always in some kind of trouble with teachers, because i honestly didn’t like the way they taught, what they taught, how they communicated and the whole school system in general. So I was hated by some of them..disliked by many…and among them were also some individuals who i really and truly respected and got along with really well. Although…until the very end of schoolyears…even in the University (!)…i was never again truly part of any gang..i had my few close friends and that’s it. So…the pressure was there…definitely. To fit in you have to have the same kind of problems as your firends have….and if their problems seem trivial to you or you just don’t have the same kind of problem (as you did not get F on the last test) then….you don’t fit in…you are the odd one out..the one who “doesn’t have it hard”.

Sarah August 12, 2013 at 1:35 am

I think J hit the nail on the head with her comment “There’s a lot of societal pressure to be accommodating to male desires”. This is so true, and I think it’s kind of like racism in that if you haven’t experienced it personally, you can trick yourself into thinking that it doesn’t exist.

I went to middle and high school in a small, rural town where a lot of my classmates never even considered going to college. I was always a geek and I always expected to get more education. I felt like I had no value to other high schoolers because I was sort of awkward and not pretty in the stereotypical way, but I also knew that there was a whole world out there that I was preparing for, and I focused my efforts on getting that life. I wasn’t ashamed of being smart or bookish, but it didn’t benefit me to be perceived that way, so I never put effort into expressing much of that aspect of myself to my peers (other than friends, when it related to common interests and such).

So I went to college and then medical school, then became an ER doctor and for a time I worked at an Ivy League university as faculty and trained residents. It was a very intellectual environment. There, I felt like I could let my geek flag fly, but people often took themselves too seriously. I didn’t try to represent myself as a hyperintellectual person, but if I knew something relevant to a case that could be considered intellectual, I would not hesitate to share it.

However, I try not to let it be known outside of work that I am a doctor. I sort of feel like an anthropologist sometimes and I just want to blend in with whatever sector of society I happen to be in. It can make interactions awkward very quickly if people find out that you’re a doctor. For example, if you’re getting your hair cut at a $9 haircut place (which I do) and the stylist asks you what you do for a living: If you say “doctor” they sometimes don’t quite know what to do with you after that and the entire conversation becomes sort of awkward. I’ve had people at parties ask me what I do and then say, “Oh, so you’re really smart then,” and walk away. As a result, I usually avoid the topic altogether when I am in a non-medical setting, and if they ask me where I work, I say “in a hospital” and hope that they change the subject.

It’s all very goal-oriented for me. If I want someone to respect my opinion on because I need them to help me with something (admit this patient, etc.), I will not as heavily censor my credentials or often complicated and data-heavy thought process as much. If I don’t need to influence them professionally, I just lay low and interact, and usually don’t say the various geekish things that come to mind unless it seems like it will add value to the interaction.

David August 12, 2013 at 6:08 pm

>“There’s a lot of societal pressure to be accommodating to male desires”. This is so true, and I think it’s kind of like racism in that if you haven’t experienced it personally, you can trick yourself into thinking that it doesn’t exist.

I’ve always had the impression that the worst of patriarchy is behind us, and maybe it is, but reading these comments is making me realize how far we have to go :(

Hamlet August 12, 2013 at 6:33 pm

We males could certainly use such eye-openers, and here’s another one that made a big impression for me:

chrissy August 13, 2013 at 7:13 am

Honestly? Have I been tricking myself all this time, into not noticing that this pressure exists?
My formative years were spent in England, where -being from an under privileged, single parent family – I felt classism. Keenly.
Now I’m in Canada, in my adult years, and I still feel like I’ve never been subjected to this kind of gender pressure.

This isn’t to say I don’t feel social queues. I understand there’s a time and place to reign in obvious “feats” of intelligence, and to dumb myself down. I do this for “people”, however. It’s not gender related. This just feels gracious, or something, to me. I’d always dumb down to make someone feel more comfortable, the same way as I’d hold back information about the condo I’ve bought, my life savings, my lovely holidays abroad, in the presence of someone less fortunate. Or bragging about my good health to someone who is experiencing health issues. And it’s never once felt like I’m cheating myself, or that I’m making an unnecessary sacrifice. It just feels like the right thing to do. I feel that if someone is noticeably uncomfortable/threatened/intimidated in my company, then I will do what it takes to make that person feel at ease. I will always bring myself to their level of comfort. Truthfully? I enjoy it. It feels like I’ve won something. Trust, maybe. No matter how fleeting the interaction.

I have friends and family who give me the space to be who I truly am. Maybe I’d feel different, if they weren’t always there for a comfy landing.

greg August 18, 2013 at 9:12 am

I found this quite interesting. As a male, I’ve started doing the same more to find common ground than anything. But perhaps we are also a bit “removed” from playing to social norms.

As I stumbled back into the dating scene for a while in a city with lots of money generally sloshing around, I became acutely aware of presentation as myriad subtle cues about refinement, wealth, “personality/originality”… that in my mind are quite pointless. But if one plays by the rules, this is, perhaps, just the inevitable. Clearly being “social creatures” has helped us along to some extent, but I honestly don’t feel like playing that game.

Lori August 12, 2013 at 9:06 pm

Interesting how Sarah isn’t the only one to avoid revealing her profession in general conversation. I was a stay-at-home mom from about a year after I moved into town until about 5 years ago. After I announced that I was going back to work as an engineer, some of the moms who’d been perfectly comfortable with Lori the SAHM were suddenly uncomfortable with Lori the engineer.

sallyann August 12, 2013 at 1:40 am

I’m 40, and I remember it being uncool to be smart in high school. I just accepted the lack of coolness, I couldn’t be bothered dumbing down. I think the pressure on looks has increased since I was a teenager though. Teenagers have so much groupthink and peer pressure happening, like there is only one acceptable way to be. Little diversity.

Kim August 12, 2013 at 2:58 am

I remember that I never talked about getting good grades and only ‘bragged’ about getting the occasional bad one, showing off the “who cares about school” attitude. In the same way, I never studied for tests. Getting good grades was okay as long as you weren’t a studious teacher’s pet. That façade didn’t even really break down when I switched my circle of friends from the cool kids to the nerds.
My parents never pressured me to dumb down and I never felt the need to do this to be less threatening to boys (sometimes it helps being gay ;-)). A friend of mine, though, who is super smart and never hid it, had serious problems finding a boyfriend because the guys shied away from her intelligence. So there seems to be sth to this, too.
For me, however, it was all about appearing as cool. That meant showing off that you’re a little different (but not too much) and not care about what adults wanted you to care about. Being a SciFi geek who admired the brilliant astrophysicist Sam Carter and saying “F**k School” was no contradiction to me. It wasn’t about whether or not to value intelligence, it was about rebellion.

DiscoveredJoys August 12, 2013 at 4:00 am

I have no particular insight into what motivates girls and women at different ages. I do wonder though if a televised quiz program would attract contestants that were prepared to display their attractiveness (as they see it) rather than their brains. What female ‘brainiac’ would choose to put themselves through such an ordeal? Perhaps what you were seeing was a biased selection.

J August 12, 2013 at 9:30 am

That seems a little unfair. ‘Brainiacs’ are taught to be competitive and achievement-oriented, competing in things like spelling bees, debates, mathletes etc. Why wouldn’t those kids aspire to be on Jeopardy or some such? Not everyone on TV wants to be a Real Housewife. ;)

David August 12, 2013 at 6:10 pm

The game show certainly doesn’t represent a scientific study, and that’s why I ask in this post whether this is surprising to women out there.

Anita August 12, 2013 at 4:15 am

Back in my days of dating and having boyfriends, I was very mindful not to make the guy look bad by using words I knew he wouldn’t understand or mentioning courses or job prospects etc. Sometiimes the gap between us was fairly small and I didn’t have to work too hard, but on other occasions the gap would be huge and I’d really have my work cut out dumbing down the conversation.

Fortunately I married someone every inch my equal. This is definitely the ideal situation. We enjoy discussing weighty issues and each share our insights and opinions whenever we can. At the mention of sport I’m afraid my eyes glaze over and I’m unable to feign an interest of any kind, however just about every other topic is fodder for our lengthy debates.

The prospect of a lifetime of caution would fill me with dread.Thankfully luck was on my side in the husband department.

emma August 12, 2013 at 4:34 am

Kia ora
Firstly thanks for addressing this question.
I grew up in the Maggie Thatcher years. I remember what was said about her. It impressed upon me that women who take a stand are ridiculed.I remember until the age of 14 I had strong opinions, or as I would rather put it ideas that I would like to debate. I was told I was opinionated and boys didnt like me. I stopped speaking up as I really wanted to be liked!!! What young person does not want to be liked!!!!! It took along time to start speaking up again. When I awoke to what I had been doing it was an internal revolution to realise I did not have to please men or anybody to love myself.
Studies have shown that women, when speaking publicly are not taken a seriously as men. When so many authority figures in the world are male I feel it would be difficult for any young women to take herself seriously
I raise myself and my girls to value their thoughts and feelings. To be aware that the world will not always like us no matter what we do. I educate them on issues that will affect them to give them a fighting chance to be themselves.
Females are encouraged to think of themselves as future mothers and carers. Women do most of the unpaid caring labour,there is a reason for this. Reasons you dont always become aware of until you look closer. Governments save millions with women doing the caring labour for free.Just observe the global attitudes towards women who dont want to have children or DARE to have an abortion.IF they can get one.
Women are often trapped into childcare labour by the very machinery that makes them female. Historically women have often been treated as second class citizens and still today in so many countries this is still the case. I dont think you can underestimate the impact of these issues in the imature psyche of young women.

Mira D August 12, 2013 at 4:59 am

Not directly.
Maybe growing up I was v sheltered– small town, India.
But I was taught to speak softly and use diplomacy.

Maike August 12, 2013 at 5:01 am

I grew up in Germany and from as early as I can remember I was worried about looking too studious and not being liked because I was smart. I was very good at school without ever studying much and my brothers who weren’t as smart kept making fun of me and pretended I was studying all the time. Also, in my family – especially by my aunts – I was encouraged to be humble about my intelligence. I became really lazy in school, and only at university did I get a little bit more ambitious. I do believe that I could have learned so much more in school if I hadn’t tried to fit in as much.

ms-pym August 12, 2013 at 5:30 am

I’m 39, aware that I was smart from an early age, and also socially isolated at school from an early age. This had one side effect which was that I ignored the unspoken pressure to be above school, to try impress boys, and to smooth over egos which I could see other girls experiencing.
The second side effect was that I interpreted this all this as there is no way that you will fit in or ever date anyone, it’s just that I decided to Not Care, that this was a price I was willing to pay.
The third side effect was that when I did date people, I had absolutely no standards. I couldn’t believe there would ever be anyone else who would want to date me so I shouldn’t reject anyone who asked me. I wasted a lot of time trying to make relationships work that I should have walked away from because I didn’t think there were alternatives other than doomed spinsterhood.

And I watch this happening to young women still.

Christine August 12, 2013 at 5:50 am

I grew up in Japan where, for the most part, girls are deemed more desireable (read: cute) if they not only dumb themselves down, but act as though they are clumsy, put on nasal voices, walk pigeon-toed and have big eyes. I’m generalising a bit, but this ideal is definitely very wide-spread. Oh, you should preferably weigh 42kg too.

Being half Caucasian, I struggled to fit this ideal in terms of weight and as for the rest of it, I had no intention of conforming. Maybe this is one reason I ended up dating older foreign men as opposed to Japanese boys my own age.

You don’t need to speak Japanese to see what I mean when I say the model Rola is the epitome of this ideal: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zvwge4d_G8

Moni August 12, 2013 at 6:06 am

I have two teenage daughters and a group of their friends here right now and have put the question to them. So here’s the feedback. Its more of a case of fitting in (translate: conforming) with their immediate friends than their place in the school social hierachy.

They all feel there is nothing wrong with good grades at school but if that is your only attribute then its probably going to be harder socially.

They explained it much better than I am here, but they felt it was more important to be a well rounded package deal. Each of these girls I am talking to have earnt really good marks at school, they’re all in the top classes etc but they aren’t thought of as being the smart girls, they’re thought of as being the outgoing girls, the sporty girls, the reasonably responsible girls, etc etc. They get on well with most of their teachers and most adults in general. Great senses of humour. Looks – the range covers average to gorgeous but that doesn’t seem to be a factor in what they’re telling me. Yes they like to be admired by the boys but they’re pretty sure that the guys want to be admired/desired too. I guess that evens the playing field as far as they’re concerned.

I pitched the idea of Clued In to them, and they all said it was a really lame idea. A show that only presented them as being only smart, no thanks. But if being smart was only one segment of the show and there were other areas to compete in, or if it was a team event, then yes they would probably try their hardest.

Milda August 12, 2013 at 6:08 am

Honestly, yes, I’ve been in such situations. For the record, I’m currently 22 and I’m from Eastern Europe… and I think we got it worse here (a lot of bigoted people, sadly).

Although in high school, I think it was quite the opposite with the participation, it would be the boys that remained silent. Maybe because of my particular school, though.

But honestly, I’ve been in situations when I start to argue and instead of listening to my arguments the man I was arguing with would become very condescending and such. I sometimes feel like they were surprised I wasn’t dumb or something.

Plus, the Western culture puts so much more emphasis on your looks than on your brains, it’s pretty horrible. I don’t feel affected too much by it, but I grew up in family with very strong and independent women and I was taught to stand up for myself and was always told I am smart.

I’m also VERY stubborn, which made me act differently than it was expected of me on purpose, so I’m really not the best example.

Corinna August 12, 2013 at 6:20 am

I experience this on almost a daily basis. I work at a coffee shop in corporate campus that is populated mostly by attorneys. I am an intelligent person, but I am often deemed the smart one, almost as I am some kind of witch, or that I should be given some kind of treat for knowing four syllable words. Granted there is some kind of cultural paradigm that selects against for intellegent people working in the service industry into their late 20s, but I like my job and am a freelance writer, and live a lifestyle that the coffee shop work suits.

I went to small private, catholic high school, where the segregated classes by gender. The girls were taught by part time teachers, frequently moms of students. The boys had 5 PhDs teaching them.

There is a lot of pressure for women not to appear as capable as they are, because they should be “cute” or needed to be taken care of. Differences in intelligence are another way to reinforce a social program where women are supposed to be on the weaker end of the power differential. Its impossible to escape this, and requires a lot of meta awareness of the education system you participate in.

Thank you for your thoughts on this, and bringing up this conversation. It’s often defeating to feel like these issues go unnoticed.

Stephanie August 12, 2013 at 6:30 am

I was significantly younger and smarter than my classmates. I skipped a grade and still was tested at the top. Being younger, smaller, less mature than the other girls, I spent most of my efforts trying to be liked. Unfortunately it came at the cost of my self esteem. I remember first report card of sixth grade I got straight As. I showed it to the girls at the lunch table whose immediate reaction was to stare at me like I had a third head. I promptly tore up the report card and threw it away. I never made good grades again until later in college.

I’m now 41. I spent years of my life as a top PVP computer gamer. No one I work with knows this. I once told my sister-in-law who laughed aloud at the idea that I counted that as an achievement. I still strive to outwardly convey the image of sophistication. Occasionally, I still slip up and rattle off information. The conversation pauses and everyone looks at me. I’m no longer ten, so I quietly let the conversation resume around me, but it’s still painful that geeky me just doesn’t belong with other women. I frequently deal with extreme depression after one of these isolating incidents.

I now have three daughters of my own. All are bright and are dealing with it in different ways. The oldest has embraced it and joined the school academic quiz league. What allows her to do so seems to be her ability to be outwardly unflappable.

The middle girl is unfortunately going my route. She is by far smarter than anyone in the city and her peers are starting to notice and cold-shoulder her. I don’t think she’s noticed yet, but she lacks the oldest’s ability to ignore others.

The youngest girl plays dumb all the time. She’s just as smart as the oldest, but has a better social intelligence and is mastering that game. I hear from other mom’s that she’s considered by the boys the prettiest girl in school, but frequently have teacher conferences where I have to explain that she doesn’t need to be placed in remedial classes when she’s passed the qualifications for the advanced ones.

On the happiness scale, the youngest is the most sunny while the middle one is least.

Samantha October 13, 2013 at 8:54 am

You are so very right..
As I have always been more of a girl who is interested in science and how the earth revolves as opposed to shoes and makeup, I noticed how lonely it can be. Most women around me have simple aspirations and choose to lead sedentary lives. Because of this…there are few women that i really click with. I too get depressed and I think……why couldnt I be more girly.

Liv August 12, 2013 at 6:32 am

I never felt pressure so to speak. However, there were several instances in high school where I showed interest in physics and because the main group of students interested in this already were almost entirely male, I was laughed at. They thought (and said out loud) ‘Oh look, the girl is trying to be smart too and fit in with the guys’. I can’t say it ever made me feel like I had to dumb myself down, but it certainly made me question why girls were looked down upon like that. I made an even bigger effort after that to be more knowledgeable so I wouldn’t look like I was just trying to fit in with the guys too much. This was ten years ago now, and I feel like it was definitely less intimidating to the males if we didn’t achieve as much as them. There’s still a lingering sexism in society for sure.

Stasia August 12, 2013 at 6:36 am

There is certainly social pressure on girls – and women – not to appear too smart. I know I’m smart, but it’s hard to admit it even here. My father was a physicist and raised me and my sister to use our brains. When I was a teen I didn’t see any reason to pretend I wasn’t smart, or maybe I just didn’t have enough of a social clue to realize it would help if I did, but I was something of a social outcast because of it. On the other hand, all my friends were geeky guys who didn’t know how to interact with girls, but I was okay because I didn’t act like a girl – I acted smart and geeky. As an adult, I’ve found it helps me get along with neighbors and coworkers if I consciously try to appear no smarter than they are. I don’t like having to do this, but getting along with people is important too. With friends it’s a different matter – anyone I actually consider a friend is just as smart as I am, so I don’t have to pretend.

Clare August 12, 2013 at 6:39 am

I felt there was that pressure to not do anything uncool, including being clever and studying – but I was a geek, as were my band of chums, so we rose above it because we found that attitude vaguely farcical.

shreen August 12, 2013 at 6:47 am

I dumb myself down a lot but I am quite aware of the reasons why – I generally don’t enjoy the reactions it brings when I am open about the extent of my knowledge on things. People make rash assumptions (think I am arrogant, or trying to show off for their benefit).

So it’s not a gender thing for me, not consciously anyway.

“One of my geek-level interests is in individuals who defy mainstream cultural pressures in order to do what they want with their lives, but it’s hard to know quite which pressures other people face if you don’t experience them yourself. Tell me your experiences.”

I actually grew up very isolated. I was practically mute until age 17 and had a friendless (albeit happy, inquisitive) childhood. I guess I grew up not knowing those social perks you get when you conform in ways such as dumbing down and acting in certain ways to garner external validation. I’ve grown up to be fiercely independent in my tastes as an adult. It’s really fun! :)

Dylan August 12, 2013 at 6:54 am

I am a teacher of the gifted and I have taught many brilliant girls ages 8-13. I’d say there is definitely a trend as girls enter the teenage years to at least outwardly hide their intellect. Some will continue to study/make good grades/pursue their interests, but others drop these intellectual activities to impress their peers. I will say though that there is a concurrent trend of underachievement in young boys nationally, so I think girls are starting to step up to the plate and outrun their male counterparts academically.. as if there isn’t room for both genders to slack off. I do think girls today have more confidence in all disciplines than girls in my generation did (when I was young I didn’t think I was good at math- but I was). I’m encouraged by the growing popularity of nerdiness, as girls want to impress the geeky, quirky guy they’ll have to start to show off their intelligence and stop hiding it.

mildao August 12, 2013 at 6:59 am

Interesting topic.

I am now 20. I think I might not be the best example to tell you about giving in to peer pressure – I have always had some persons at school pressuring me about something (appearance, the intelligence/learning thing, alcohol/partying), but I also managed to stay with my opinion. Maybe thanks to my parents, friends and teachers who encouraged me to do what I feel is right for me. (Maybe also a little because I study art and…well, in most cases creative persons get away more easily with doing things their own way. :) )

I think it might be true that most girls at the age of ~12, being pressured by their classmates, stop taking interest in learning (or at least – try to seem like they don’t care about school, homeworks, etc.) and focus more on how they look. Either in U.S. or elsewhere – I’m from Latvia and here teenagers have more or less the same problems as I’ve heard they have in other countries.

From my experience, if you are a 12-year-old girl who actually IS interested in learning something at school (and I was) and don’t hide it, you may be called a nerd by your classmates. Of course it’s unpleasant and everyone wants to fit in. How and if you can manage to do it – your own problem. I think if I had surrendered to the pressure and tried to fit in with the ‘cool kids’ – I don’t think I would have been any happier than I actually was. :)

Things changed in high school. I went to an art and design school where we had entrance exams to get in… Suddenly the ones who studied weren’t nerds anymore. Everyone worked very hard to manage finishing the school works. What I’m saying is: the pressure about “not learning = being cool” vanishes with time and…maybe by getting motivated to make one’s dreams come true! (in this case – becoming an artist)

Patricia August 12, 2013 at 7:12 am

Although I know that there is pressure to be beautiful rather than smart for girls, I wonder if it’s just a sign of a poor educational system. How do we know that boys would have known the answers to the questions? S What I’ve noticed more than anything in our current culture is that the “young people” lack what I would have considered basic knowledge when I was in school. I’ve seen videos of young people being stopped in the street and asked simple questions about history or geography and their lack of information is simply a reflection of a poor education, and has nothing to do with intelligence.

Estelle August 12, 2013 at 7:21 am

My experience with that has been rather strange. I was always a very smart student with very high grades. I went to a private high school with an enriched program. Being smart was what my parents, my teachers, and my role models expected of me, and I felt that pressure acutely.

I was a huge nerd, of course. With my close group of friends, I could be myself – a smart and funny albeit shy girl. When I was with anyone else, and especially boys, I had to be very careful not to show I was smart. I had to use only a fraction of the vocabulary I knew. And when they said something that was incorrect, I had to bite my tongue not to correct them. Nowadays, as a university student, I don’t have that problem anymore as I mostly hang out with people that are as booksmart as I am. I absolutely confirm that in high school, this trend exists though.

My hypothesis about that is that it’s because when puberty hits, girls start wanting to attract boys and they wonder how they can do that. And when they look in media, all they see is girls that hook up thanks to their looks and what we consider to be feminine behavior (being caring, demure, etc.). The media tells girls that guys feel threatened in their masculinity if a girl is something more than them – smarter, stronger, more assertive. So girls stop being interested in learning, because they want to be cool, to fit in, and to fit in in high school, having a boyfriend is a must.

plain jane August 12, 2013 at 7:26 am

This post was exceptionally interesting to me on many levels. First off & most obviously your bit about how you only geeked out with other guys – which led me to wonder whether/to what extent you were creating an atmosphere where girls didn’t feel welcome to be similarly smart & geeky.

I don’t know if you are at all tied into the current discussion in other parts of the ‘net about the “fake geek girl” controversy. Which is that girls who show up at sf gatherings dedicated to various genre events (especially the media tie-in ones) are being asked in subtle and unsubtle ways to prove their geekiness, where the guys are just accepted. (e.g. at SDCC http://seanan-mcguire.livejournal.com/524767.html) – There is also the question as to why casual fandom doesn’t count, but that is another issue.

I’m not sure whether girls are more pressured away by the mainstream from being geeks than guys are, it probably depends on what form of geek you’re thinking of. But once they’ve self-selected, there are pockets that are very unfriendly. The casual comments bandied around the comp-sci lab at my university did not create a positive atmosphere.

Women also need to tread a fine line in the office, be assertive enough, but not too bitchy. Show what they know & speak their mind, but also remember that they’re _supposed_ to be better at team work and the interpersonal crap than executing on any particular deliverable (unless it is something boring that requires great attention to detail). Male geeks seem to be given a free pass on not having great interpersonal skills because the other stuff they create is valuable enough.

Ashley August 12, 2013 at 7:50 am

Yes definitely I think that pressure exists among adolescent peers but I would say that societal influence has our backs. I believe the majority of adolescents have a herding extinct or, otherwise known as, a desire to fit in. When I was in my teens I decided to leave my school and attend a public boarding school for nerds (essentially), and to my extremely unanticipated surprise my former schoolmates shunned me. They stopped responding to my letters and phone calls and when I came home for visits there were bitter rumors about me being too smart and too snobby. While this is an extreme example, my desire to leave came from what I sensed as an extreme pressure to be caught up in the other aspects of adolescence. I didn’t want to feel pressured to sneak out of the classroom and hang out in the bathroom or pass notes during an entire lesson, and I certainly didn’t want to blow off projects for mid-week sporting events.

Nonetheless, I do not think it is safe to say that this peer pressure has detrimental lasting effects. After the junior high age, what I call “the fog” begins to lift and children begin their journey into the land of rationality. The truth of the matter is that more women than ever are entering male dominated fields, and at a rapid pace. Sure there is peer pressure to have a ditzy, damsel/maiden aspect at that onset of raging hormones, but the message in society today is not that a young girl should immediately seek a man, it is that she should seek to be financially stable and happy.


lori August 12, 2013 at 7:52 am

I noticed in my freshman year in high school that the more I raised my hand in class, the less popular I was. It was like I had been clueless, and then the scales fell from my eyes and I saw that if I wanted to be popular, I had to hide parts of myself. My mother had been a cheerleader/homecoming queen, and there seemed to be tremendous pressure on me at home to transform myself from a geeky smart girl to an “it” girl. So I transformed, and my gradepoint dropped. It would have been nice to have been encouraged and empowered to be myself…but rather than hypothesize about what might have been, we can all do what we can to make a difference for the young women in our own lives.

Brent August 12, 2013 at 8:01 am

David, I recommend that you read the book The Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller. I think it’ll help you make sense of this article.

Jenna August 12, 2013 at 8:05 am

I have a bit of a different take on this, as I grew up transgender. I’m 22, and having transitioned young, I’m unreadable and due to a stroke of genetic luck, I am considered highly conventionally attractive. One thing I can tell you is that while I came from anything but a supportive environment growing up, I wasn’t discouraged from geeky pursuits, and intelligence was one of my strengths.

…Now, though? Yeah, I feel a lot of pressure to not overextend myself, I’m not even considered for jobs that require any form of intelligence, despite having a bachelors degree. I’m laughed at when I open my mouth for thinking I know something, I’m talked over, ignored, dismissed. There’s nothing quite like the incredulous look in a man’s eye when you slip and say something really relevant and insightful.

I knew I was going to encounter sexism going in to this, and I’ve been a life long feminist, but I underestimated the intensity.

Tony August 12, 2013 at 8:18 am

I’ve enjoyed reading all of the interesting comments. Perhaps a lesson to be taught to our children and to ourselves is to be true to your talents and abilities and not try to fight the futile battle of getting other people to think of us in a certain way. Easier said than done with teenagers, but certainly possible within ourselves.

Regarding “This American Life”, their “Testosterone” episode offers a possible neurochemical factor to this discussion. The first part of the episode is an interview with a man who became testosterone deficient. The second part is an interview with a woman who decided to become a man and took high dose testosterone. Both reveal that perhaps our bodies and brain chemistry are better thought of as “environmental” rather than “fundamentally self”.


cj August 12, 2013 at 8:26 am

The cultural trend is not happening in American schools, it is happening in American homes. I teach classical guitar. Boys are encouraged to keep playing and chase their dreams while girls are encouraged to get serious about family, especially making and raising their own. My female students always, and I mean always, start out faster and better than the males, but when they hit middle and high school, they drop or plateau. All of my adult students (college or older), save one, are male.

Our schools are nothing more than a reflection of our societal values and most of them suck, and it is having a horrible effect on most women, still – in 2013 no less.

Trish Scott August 12, 2013 at 8:55 am

I was always taught that performing better than males in anything at all was just not to be done, not polite, not what a well brought up girl was to do, ever. A small example was after I’d soundly trounced a boy in several ping pong games my father saying, “Trisha. You have to let the boys win SOMETIMES.” The “sometimes” was his way of acknowledging that I wasn’t going to do any such thing.

This attitude is so pervasive that girls and women can’t see it much clearer than boys and men. Analyzing cultural memes like this is like a fish analyzing water – it just doesn’t occur very often. If you watch the series Mad Men you will get the whole subjugation of women in the 50’s now, but back in the day it was just the way it was. Still is. One needs only look as far as the still huge disparity in pay to see that the whole system is biased against women competing on a mans level. Are we marching in the streets and tearing down the whole system? No? Why? We gave it a go in the 70’s and took a few scraps but… Why are we content to leave well enough alone? BECAUSE WE HAVE BEEN TAUGHT FROM BIRTH THAT OUR PLACE IS A SUPPORTIVE ROLE, NOT THE LEADING PART.

Sommer August 12, 2013 at 8:58 am

You brought up an interesting point when you mentioned that you and your friends would do nerdy things together. I’ve been a nerd my entire life, but my nerd endeavors have mostly been solo activities, while time spent with other girls generally revolved around watching chick flicks and talking about boys/gossiping about other girls. I don’t ever remember talking about anything of relevance, like things we had learned in class, what our future dreams and aspirations were, ideas we had… I didn’t have the pleasure of engaging in that kind of intellectually stimulating conversation until I got to college where I majored in math at a school where the majority of math majors were women. Some of my best memories of those times were steering off course while doing my homework to talk to my roommate (also a math major) about the implications of the material we had just read.

This probably all explains why the majority of my friends growing up were boys.

I have vivid memories of sitting in my high school biology class and my teacher’s face turning bright red because the girls in the back row were too busy putting on make up during class to take notes or even listen. He eventually gave up on them.

Hillary August 12, 2013 at 9:04 am

This discussion is fascinating to me. I want to say, no — this just isn’t true, but as I read the comments I started remembering some things.

Yes, at some point towards end of high school and into college I learned that being outspoken, asking tough questions and being smart was not cool. I assumed it was across the board and have no basis for whether it was different for males.

mariavlong August 12, 2013 at 9:12 am

The first insult a boy learns probably before preschool is “you act/throw/sound like a girl.” A girl hears that and initially does not believe something is wrong with being female until she feels the magnitude of the cultural bias press down (age 10 or 12 maybe) then you go underground. Also, I doubt oxygen did not compromise by choosing contestants based on appearance excluding plain or not attractive girls from appearing. To this day (I’m 55) I am dumbfounded when I remember how my male classmates started speaking to me with a certain mocking authority like I was their junior, intuitively! Even if I did certain stuff better it did not count. There is more than one way to kill a girl.

Maru August 12, 2013 at 10:08 am

Hi mariavlong, I agree with you in the explanation you give. I repeat this is not the case here at Buenos Aires. I am 42 and I have never experienced any kind of segregation for being female. Not at school, college, university, projects, health cares, and work. But I know this is the case at Chile, for instance, they are still fighting for gender equality in salaries, for instance.
I was reading some comments and I begin to remember some things. And it is right, at high school I did have some “encounters” with some professors :)
At University, yes! I had some fights with them.
But, perhaps it is the way I was raised. I made public, and I talked and talked, and wriote letters :) Overall I enjoyed every situations of those.
Two years ago, there was a cultural activity here, to show “pensamiento argentino” (“argentinian thought” was the title of the exhibition): historical steps of our nation. I was amazed for the fight for women vote, and protagonism in the equality struggle. I was not aware of that facts: which means that facts were not taught at us at school, were they must be taught (the protagonism was by the hand of Eva Peron). And I remember I think how a strenght to fight and such victories won, so women at my age have never had to experiment that kind of segregation.

Fred Bement August 12, 2013 at 9:23 am

I have 2 nieces (my brother’s daughters), and the eldest is studious, a very good musician, and clearly on the college bound path. She hangs with kids of her ilk, and does not hide her intelligence. She likes the geeks, and she’ll be one forever.

My younger niece misspells words on Facebook, uses pretty tough language, is very expressive, and doesn’t care if she’s seen as a little ditzy. She sounds like one of Clued In’s contestants. Empowerment speeches are not going to change her. She is popular, she is pretty, and she is not interested in stepping it up intellectually at all.

K August 12, 2013 at 9:34 am

When I was in 8th grade, my social studies teacher took me into an empty classroom and had a serious talk with me. He said that from now on (I was 13), boys would expect me to dumb down and not say the answer to questions and to look pretty all the time. He said that I should never pretend not to know something and to always remember this conversation. I still do ! I was in gifted classes and got a lot of grief for it, but later I realized that different levels of boldness set people apart, for better or for worse. I wish every girl got that talk from a teacher or role model.

Maru August 12, 2013 at 9:57 am

Guau! what a wise person was your teacher!. Spread on her advice to other girls :)

Suzanne August 12, 2013 at 9:39 am

No, because I am a bright girl with a very high (tested) IQ, and I have always taken people by surprise with what I know. I haven’t really seen a television show or a movie in 10 years, I’ve never played a video game, I don’t drink or do drugs, I never had children, and I don’t read newspapers exclusively and try to base my opinion around what is written. I don’t think I am better than anybody else, and never will think that, but I am different, there is no denying that. I just don’t think in terms of gender and what I am ‘supposed’ to do. A lot of the stuff many guys spend their time on (sports, cars, etc) simply don’t have any interest for me, but if they did I’d be right there doing it.

I never think much of myself in terms of gender. I am who I am, and whatever gender that is, I’d still do what I do.

Julie Zipper August 12, 2013 at 9:42 am

Wow, what a great discussion! I’m interested in Brent’s comment about the mating book. That’s the first thing that came to mind for me when reading your article~ this seems primal and animalistic, chemical and hormonal. What if the appearance of dumbing down was actually a certain kind of primal mating intelligence that naturally kicks in for girls with a strong feminine energetic? What if it’s the masculine lens that perceives it as “dumbing down?” As for myself, I was in all the honors classes, and enjoyed being in the geek squad, but at a certain point, intellectual pursuits, in the way I had experienced them, lost their interest. I wasn’t overtly taught to “dumb myself down” by society, nor did I ever feel shamed for my intelligence (if anything I felt competition to do better!). I’m sure it leaked in somewhere into my subconscious from the masses, but I believe the stronger impulse was a primal, sexual mating instinct. Society shows us what we can do with that mating instinct… but the instinct is there. I feel encoded to express a strong feminine energy, much as others would feel the opposite. And, the feminine energetic is beautifully, purposefully receptive. Not passive! It is powerful, it is magical, and it is the “cauldron” not the “magic wand” ;-) Moni’s response seemed to hit the nail on the head to me… the feminine intelligence is broad and multi-focused, while the masculine intelligence is more singular in it’s focus. :-)

Terri Lynn August 12, 2013 at 10:03 pm

I agree. Its not a conscious pattern. It goes too deep for me to track. What fascinates me most was the response I had when I came across the title of this weeks blog in my email this morning. I didn’t open it because I was at work and I was sure that I was going to have an emotional response reading it, just from looking at the title.

Eric August 12, 2013 at 9:47 am

In contrast to the experiences of some of the other posters. The entire way through school I had the opposite experience. At the schools I went too, the top students were almost always female.

There was certainly some ditzy female students as well.

But the females almost always outperformed the guys, and it was a relatively well known fact. Perhaps it was the environment at my school, but there didn’t seem to be a pressure for young ladies to make themselves appear less intelligent.

Maru August 12, 2013 at 9:54 am

Hi David. I have never felt that pressure. I went to an English School, here at Buenos Aires. I was the first grade of the entire college during 4 consecutive years. The three next grades were: two girls, and a boy. We all were ok with that.
At “high school” I went to public school, and again, there was nothing wrong with high grades.
BUT, and this is a big BUT, I agree with you in this: I live in a culture extremely different from the culture documented in the podcast. I only can imagine that culture, and imagine it in a distorsioned way, because the only way I can access that way of life and values is mainly through TV series.
So, I tell you here, at Buenos Aires, there is no relation between being sporty, smart, beautiful, slutty, hight or low grades, artist oriented, etc.
Here at Buenos Aires, you may encounter a small “subculture” of people phiscally radicated here, but living at Miami. May be at those exclusive schools you can find the phenomena that interests you. But it is not in the rest of the city or the country.

On the other hand, I have spent a lot of time at Chile. There they do have a similar culture. Where “having high grades”, meaning, being “mateo” or “matea” has a stigma of being socially dumb, naive, or even stupid, just for girls. For boys, on the contrary, bars are set higher and they are overwhelmed the most of the time for just being over pressured. High grades and money are positively correlated in boys, and everybody knows that it has nothing to do with intelligence or skills. Money–> high grades at the “right” school –> money. That is the rule for boys.
It is not well seen a woman too smart there, quickly one becomes “over smart” :), not appropiate.
I am thinking about Buenos Aires, and maybe the phenomena you describe exist in some minorities, ethnic minorities, where it is not appropiate for them being “too” smart. A kind of a limit they must respect.

ronda August 12, 2013 at 10:04 am

I am 50 years old, and I remember trying VERY hard not to be smart. School was always easy for me, so I naturally made good grades, but it was not cool, so I did everything I could to downplay it. I couldn’t quite make myself put down answers that I knew were wrong, but I did NOT want to be seen as a geek. Most of the top students in our class were female, but most of us made it very obvious that we couldn’t care less. I was salutatorian of my class, mostly because I didn’t realize it until it was too late to lose the position (yes, I actually tried!) I even tried to get the thrid-place person to make the graduation speech instead of me, because I didn’t want to, but she refused.

So yeah, this article resonates with me. I do regret the fact that I was not very cooperative with some great teachers who tried to get me to reach my potential, but oh, well…my life has been good. Now that I am older and unhampered by the coolness factor, I am still learning every day and wish that I had more time to study all the fascinating subjects that are out there! I am sorry to hear that this ridiculous peer pressure still exists.

RoseJB August 12, 2013 at 10:05 am

I’m 26, and I absolutely remember seeing girls dumb themselves down so as not to appear threatening to boys. I was a straight A student, but even I played the babydoll role from time to time in my early dating life. Maybe it was the hormones. But it’s incredibly sad that the foolishness of a few post-pubescent years can change your life’s direction.

Looking back, I’m embarrassed by how much attention was diverted to beauty and fashion in an effort to attract the attention of the opposite sex. Looking cute, or hot, became its own study. And that appearance of hotness extended to one’s attitude and personality.

I’m lucky that my desire to be a strong student didn’t disappear, even as my thoughts turned to boys and the art of attracting them. But I watched many other bright girls let their academic lives suffer. Even then, I noticed it and was sad to witness their decision. It’s fine to experiment with flirtation, but it isn’t worth giving up a promising future for the approval of some high school boy.

Vonnie August 12, 2013 at 10:20 am

In my experience, this has long been the case, and watching a whole plethora of movies in the genre of ‘House Bunny’ with my young nieces, seems to suggest the issue is alive & well, and positively thriving.
However, in my own experience the pressure to conform can take many guises. As a child growing up in Inner City Urban London, I had the added pressure of ‘class’ distinction, and the need to ‘stay within your own boundaries’. What do I mean by that? At the age of about 8 I became interested in ballet and classical music, and decided to learn to play the violin – huge mistake! I was teased and bullied…not as I might have expected from those who saw themselves as more upper class, or who saw me as trying to stray outside the invisible boundaries of class, but from my own peers, who took this action as some sort of betrayal of our ‘class’ and ‘knowing our own place’. Add to that the pressure to not be seen as ‘too good’, ‘too clever’ and I think you have the reality for a young girl growing up in the UK several decades ago.
Alas, I hate to be the bearer of bad news guys, but it doesn’t end at teens. Heading into middle age, a divorcee, strong and fiercely independent, and living now in the Caribbean, the men here have no fear of being beaten with the ‘politically incorrect’ stick, and generally say what’s on their mind – they want their women folk to look good and be nice – being bright or clever is generally not a requirement. I suspect this may also be true for many males in more developed cultures too, but who would ever dare to utter such blasphemy….

Sarah R August 12, 2013 at 10:32 am

I personally never felt this pressure to appear dumb or to mistakenly answer questions wrong. I am now an astrophysicist. My parents were always supportive (my dad being a physics professor in University so this probably played a role). There are a few studies which I think are relevant to this discussion.

There is a cultural bias independent of ability: “Teachers tend to rate white girls’ math abilities lower than those of white male students, even when the girls’ grades and test scores are comparable to boys.” http://www.livescience.com/19552-girls-math-teachers-bias.html

When girls and boys are separated in the classroom, girls start performing equally well to men in stereotypically male dominated subjects, indicating there is indeed a social pressure for women to dumb down. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_segregation#Education_and_socialization with 5 studies cited: “Girls in single-sex schools outperform their counterparts in co-educational schools in math, average class scores for girls are higher, girls in single-sex math and science classes are more likely to continue to take math and science classes in higher education, and in case studies, boys and girls have reported that single-sex classes and single-sex teachers create a better environment for learning for both sexes”

And finally men and women gender differences are largely overrated: Men are from Earth; Women are from Earth
“From empathy and sexuality to science inclination and extroversion, statistical analysis of 122 different characteristics involving 13,301 individuals shows that men and women, by and large, do not fall into different groups. In other words, no matter how strange and inscrutable your partner may seem, their gender is probably only a small part of the problem.”

Ally August 12, 2013 at 10:39 am

I actually taught a group of middle school students for a summer session a year ago, and I noticed that the females (ages 12-14) were, in general, more quiet and less outspoken about their opinions and such than the boys were with theirs. Even when I tried to encourage them by calling them out by name, they were hesitant to answer, and if they did, their responses were mostly, “I don’t know.” I feel like this reaction was first and foremost because they were surrounded by boys. At this age, it goes without saying that girls are more self-conscious and more concerned about the opposite sex.

I then taught elementary school students (3rd to 5th graders) that same summer. This time, they happened to be all girls, and they all were eager and without inhibitions every time I asked them a question. I’m pretty sure the difference in their behavior is due to their (1) age and (2) lack of boys.

I do not think that girls begin to dumb down as they get older; rather, I think their budding self-consciousness and other concerns (boys, appearances, etc.) trump their desire to participate in class and to look intelligent.

Edith August 12, 2013 at 11:02 am

I am an only child and only granddaughter. In my family I was always encouraged to be myself, and there was no opportunity to compare myself with other male children in the family. That gave me a lot of security and I never stopped being talkative and opinionated. I started noticing other people putting me down at University, specially when talking about politics. Lots of men think politics is for men. It made me furious for people to literally shut me up. However, now that I finished my Master’s Degree in Social and Political Science, men have a different attitude… gosh, it took a degree…

Idalia August 12, 2013 at 11:09 am

I’ve found it very interesting reading some of the responses in this thread. One that caught my eye was the comment why would “brainiacs” want to be in that show; that question, and label, shows right here why this is an issue that needs to be discussed.
I’m 34 yr old middle class American with two young children of my own. I was picked on by the “popular” kids regardless of gender. I was one of those who kept raising her hand to answer questions in class and received dirty looks from the boys because of it, middle school to college. I am not overly intelligent- I do not get straight A’s quite as easily as some- but I am dedicated to learning because I love it. I am a geek and a gamer, in this point in my life I am proud of it rather than trying to hide it.
This hits home because not 4 days ago a female friend who is also a doctor teasingly called me a know-it-all. She meant it in a kind way but it still caught me off guard especially since I’ve made a point of NOT being condescending or arrogant. Still not sure how to process that one.
On a 1-10 I’d land pretty firmly on 8 for both looks and intelligence and I’ve definitely been told I’m intimidating by men and women alike. My husband has always seen me as an equal. He was raised by strong women and never developed a machismo mentality. Gender equality (of the entire spectrum) is a particular passion of mine as well.

Julia August 12, 2013 at 11:22 am

My male engineer friend once told me he observes the following tendency: when a woman is working with something (computer, car, kitchen faucet, whatever) and something goes wrong, she asks, “what am I doing wrong?” When a man is in this situation, he asks, “what is wrong with this [computer/car engine/etc.]?”

I have not yet observed this behavior in my 9yo daughter, but I have become much more aware of it in my 37yo female self.

Samantha October 13, 2013 at 8:59 am

Wow! Such few words can have such a big impact.

Tobi August 12, 2013 at 11:37 am

I never went to school, but I still acted dumb.

I’m 21, fresh out of the teenage years, so I remember.

I was home schooled, I didn’t have a lot of outside contact besides the internet and church groups. I spent a lot of time alone (and still do) and I enjoyed it like I enjoy it now.

However, when I did spend time in a group of friends (and still do sometimes) I will automatically act ditzy. It always gets me positive attention, I guess. Even though I HATED being treated like a kid, which my social group did since I wasn’t quite up with the times like they were going to school, so they assumed that they needed to treat me differently like I was a kid who they needed to censer themselves around, it was quite lonely. But despite this I still acted like you describe in this article! Maybe it was the only way I knew how to get a positive reaction, I had no people skills back then and no confidence.

Maybe it’s what was expected of me so that’s what I did. Honestly, I think women do tend to act ditzy and maybe that’s because a lot of males think it’s cute… maybe cavewomen needed to appear helpless so the men would hunt food for them I don’t know, how depressing.

January Handl August 12, 2013 at 11:43 am

We are mammals. We have a hard-wired drive to “belong” and fit in- it is the greatest psychological need, over-riding many others. Social constraints act as a cement, disallowing opportunity to go beyond the belonging need. I think we also all have some level of social anxiety built into our neuro-chemistry, and we have self-medicated this part of being human with alcohol and other mood-altering elements- including seeking out others with similar interests to alleviate the existential loneliness inherent to the body. As a preschool teacher I have the privilege of seeing children “in the raw” before too much wounding and socialization has carved away the innate personalities and temperaments. I dream of a day when we teachers see our job more as “who are you? what is your unique way of knowing and expressing?” vs. participating in the shut-down of big parts of our human gifts. Great conversation!

Linda August 12, 2013 at 6:01 pm

I love this comment!

Linda August 12, 2013 at 6:04 pm

When I was in grade school I was considered very smart. My sister wasn’t as oriented towards academics, though, and my mother always referred to us as “the smart one” and “the pretty one.” That had quite an impact on my sister well into her adult years. She never saw herself as smart and resented the fact that I would talk about subjects I had learned in school as if I was “showing off.”

High school was a big change for me. My grade school/middle school was small and private. High school was a large, public school with many different social strata. There weren’t just “jocks” and “geeks” and “popular people.” There was another whole level of social class. I was from the edge of the school district and a less affluent town. That automatically made me less “cool” and made it harder to fit in with the smart, geeky kids who were all from more affluent communities.

I also was not competitive. That’s never been in my “wiring.” In an earlier comment, J states that “‘Brainiacs’ are taught to be competitive and achievement-oriented.” I was not taught to be competitive and I’m not naturally comfortable with it. Other smart kids were taught to be competitive, and this really put me at a disadvantage in high school.

I wouldn’t say I “dumbed down” but I did not want to be in classes with others who were so achievement-oriented. I started hanging out with the stoners who were much more accepting of me as I was and weren’t trying to academically trump me all the time.

Maybe we shouldn’t assume that people who love to learn and are academically-oriented are naturally competitive. Maybe that’s one reason the teen game show wasn’t so successful. I’m *not* suggesting that all women and girls are “naturally less competitive” than men, just that there are certain people in the general population who are not motivated by competition.

As for the dichotomy of pretty/smart, maybe being labeled as “not the pretty one” when I was young relieved me of some pressure to try to be attractive and dumb myself down around men. I was always surprised when I would be told I was attractive or be asked on a date.

The thing is, I’ve never been unattractive, it’s just that I was led to believe that I was. Nowadays, I would say I’m conventionally attractive, although I really hate the advertising and cultural pressures on me to look a certain way. I refuse to wear make up, “do my hair,” or follow fashion trends. I hate to shop. I do not fit the stereotype of a “typical American woman” and I can honestly say I’ve never dumbed myself down for a man. I have, however, realized that sometimes some guys are not worth having a conversation with because they are uninterested in talking to me as an intelligent human being.

Zoe August 12, 2013 at 12:08 pm

I went to college at 15, attended a middle school for gifted students, skipped 5th grade and was generally the smartest person in class throughout my schooling. I recommend the book Smart Girls by Barbara Kerr to help understand this phenomenon and what kind of extreme obliviousness it takes to make it as a smart girl to avoid the impact of teasing and the call to dumb yourself down. When people think of a genius, they don’t think of a woman. It’s hard to reconcile the message to be modest and submissive with questions like “Man you must be really smart huh?” when people meet you or hear about you etc. For a variety of reasons the self-esteem of girls is artificially deflated and that of boys artificially inflated in the teen years. It’s hard enough to be an outspoken geek at any age, but during adolescence there’s more pressure to hide yourself if you care about learning or don’t struggle with school.

Natalie August 12, 2013 at 1:12 pm

When I was in elementary school, I tested really highly for ADD and (not to toot my own horn) I swear I was the most popular girl in my grade BUT, I got really bad grades.
I grew out of it (or adapted, I’m not sure) by the time middle school came around, and I started getting into ‘geeky’ things and started getting really good grades. That’s when I noticed that I literally had no friends anymore. Even my cousins who went to the same school wouldn’t hang out with me. I would sit on a bench by myself and read a book everyday during lunch. It was awful! As you put it yourself, “There is nothing worse than having no friends.”
Come high school, I had a group of ‘friends’ who merely tolerated me (as opposed to celebrated me) and it sucked but at least I had my ‘geeky’ things and good grades to keep me company, right?
That’s when things changed. There was this one time in a class when I genuinely did not know some universal truth about something and I expressed that outwardly and that’s when this huge group of guys flocked right over to me and were like, “WHUUUUUT NO WAAAYYY” and they were all laughing and started asking me questions and started talking to me so to keep the ball rolling (although I must admit it was almost involuntary) I kept acting super ditzy and they thought it was hilarious. So then I started making friends. And they all thought I was so funny and so adorable and it was as Tobi put it, “it was the only way I knew how to get a positive reaction.” And then my grades dropped dramatically. So, there you have it.

Now I’m a Sophomore in college and I’ve learned to balance out my social life and grades and interests and now I don’t have to be ditzy to get attention (although I think I’ve always been just a bit ditzy by nature. ADD perhaps?). Maybe it is just because I have matured, but who knows really. But now that I think about it, maybe it’s because boys have matured! Maybe the question should be more geared more towards guys. Of course guys aren’t the ones acting ditzy, but maybe it’s them reinforcing it so much that gets us to act that way. What would happen if guys reinforced the smart, studious-ness in a girl? That’s what I’d like to know.

Kathy @ SMART Living 365 August 12, 2013 at 1:17 pm

This is a very thought-provoking post. Thank you for bringing it up and for the link to the show….I had not heard it before but found it fascinating–but sad. Most every woman i know struggles with the desire to be well thought of and liked. Obviously there is much more pressure in the teenage years but it takes years and years to outgrow that desire. As long as our culture continues to make beauty, youth and attractiveness (all physical and material expressions of value) more important than wisdom, service or compassion, then I don’t see it going away soon. It’s taken me years to let go of caring what others think and claim my “smartness”…. ~Kathy

Girlgonewild August 12, 2013 at 1:43 pm

Another beautiful post David.
Okay, I can’t speak for the entire female race but here’s my recollection of that adolescent time of life and puberty.
Boobs. Not that I wanted them. I didn’t. Too much negative attention. Too much sexual connotation when I wasn’t ready for it. Then there were all the hate words directed towards girls that had boobs; slut, whore, cunt, bitch, easy.
The dawning AWARENESS of the depths of misogyny. I wanted to become invisible, even though I was smart and literate. The fear and shock of being “different” from my fellow human – males – put me in a catatonic state.

Trish Scott August 13, 2013 at 7:19 am

Wow does this resonate with me. Until I was 12 I could beat up any boy on the block. Then I got boobs and they got testosterone strength. I lost a wrestling match with the next door neighbor boy when I’d barely reached 12. It was the end of my life as I knew it and it actually took me until I was 30 to regain my powers ;). Boobs were my worst nightmare. I got them early and big. Dear God it was awful. I finally came to terms with them at 60. Whew. Finally got past the rough patch :D.

Lauren H. August 12, 2013 at 1:53 pm

The answer to your question is an unequivocal YES.

I have always been an insufferable know-it-all. I was the 7-year-old third grader who had skipped a grade, yet still knew all of my multiplication tables, all the states and capitals of the United States, the names of all the planets, and had a vocabulary that included words like “gnashed.” One of my friends in 5th grade wrote me a poem called “Lauren the girl with loads of brains.”

Some time around 11 or 12 though, I realized that the more excited I was about answering questions, the more I raised my hand and knew the answer and figured it out, the more people stared and whispered and looked at me like I was “so annoying” and “can you believe her.” Devastated by this realization, I became a desperately shy teenager convinced of my awkwardness. I still did things like sing the periodic table of the elements song at talent shows and help people with their homework, but I knew that because I was smart, I would never be popular except with people who wanted to use me as a free tutor. I would never be one of the “cool kids.”

I never experienced it necessarily as being because I was a girl. I knew plenty of nerdy boys that were “outcasts” too. I still can’t say explicitly whether being “smart” was a bad thing because I was a girl, or whether being smart was just something that wasn’t valued in high school. But I can definitely say that I felt a very large societal pressure against being “too smart” or “too eager to learn.”

Holly August 12, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Women are still being steered away from intellectual pursuits, especially geeky interests. I am 37, attended school in rural New York, was not popular or well regarded due to my intelligence and social awkwardness. I then attended MIT for college, which felt like coming home. Here, finally, were my people. I am now quite successful both socially and financially.

A huge focus of the female groups of the MIT alumni association is promoting interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in teenage girls. It is an uphill battle.

Tara August 12, 2013 at 2:00 pm

This was my experience in school – starting very young, I would say as early ad 7-8, I was treated badly and teased by the other kids for being smart and called teacher’s pet. I started purposely doing badly in school in an effort to reduce the teasing. It was only when my parents took me out of that public school at the age of 12 and put me in a private school where intelligence was respected that I felt comfortable enough to be smart and let it show. But even with the support of my new schoolmates, I had to deal with my parents, especially my mother, admonishing me to not «show off», to keep my intelligence under wraps, telling me I was no better than anyone else, etc. She told me later her mother had done the same to her when she was young, so clearly this is social conditioning. I have never really recovered from this and to this day (I am 47) have a much lower self-esteem than I believe I otherwise would have if my spirit had not been repeatedly crushed during my youth. This is part of the reason I have decided never to have children – I would not want to put another human being through what I had to go through.

JJ August 12, 2013 at 3:23 pm

Been a teen not so long ago, I think the issue was that being seen as smart–in an academic way–mean also being seen as a goody two-shoes, which, boy or girl, isn’t cool. For guys, perhaps it was easier to distract from their intelligence–or reframe it–by also being athletic and therefore be perceived as “well-rounded”. For girls, it seemed that the only way to engage in your intellectual pursuits as a teen and not be a boring, goody two-shoes, was to downplay your success in the classroom and invest in weird, creative pursuits involving art, music, or writing, so that you could be viewed as an the artsy/alternative smart girl. Not the boring one. All this coming from someone who was in high school until 2007.

Karah August 12, 2013 at 3:46 pm

I absolutely remember feeling this pressure. It wasn’t so much about not being smart, it was about not showing it. I never thought of myself as an obnoxious know-it-all. I was, and still am, someone who is very passionate about learning. I love to talk about the new things I’ve learned and to share them, hoping other people will find them as interesting as I do.

Three specific memories come to mind though.
First, in middle school, a science teacher started to get annoyed that I was the only one answering questions in class. When he tried a really hard question to throw me off, I got the right answer. His response, which was aimed at getting a laugh, was to throw a meter stick across the room. Not at me, just in my general direction. Hi-larious.

Second was in late middle school/early high school. AIM was all the rage and my screenname was KermitTheFrog289. One day, a MissPiggy289 (clearly a screenname created for the sole purpose of talking to me) IMed me and told me to stop being “such a book of facts” and continued to berate and bully me online.

Third was in college. Facebook was the new *it* thing and we all had the Honesty Box. I think everyone got it hoping someone would declare a secret crush on them, but really it was used as yet another avenue for cyber-bullying. Someone left a message in my box that said “We all know you’re smart and well-read, but you don’t need to shove it in our faces all the time.”

Like I said, I never thought that I was *showing off*. I was geeking out. Excited about things and eager to talk about them. But at three different ages, from teachers and fellow students, I was given the message that ‘No one likes you when you act smart.’ I never dumbed myself down, but I certainly tried to have a ‘I don’t care about school’ attitude, slacking off on homework that I was fully capable of doing, solely as an attempt to improve my social image.

Diana September 6, 2013 at 1:47 pm

I totally know what you are talking about. I worked in a research lab for aerospace once and I know people who introduce me to their friends as a “rocket scientist”. Somehow that ups their esteem, but it’s total buzz kill for any potential socialization for me. All night long, it’s “Ohhhh, you must be SMART”, and people back off a bit and seem awkward, as if it’s some slightly unpleasant, though not contagious, disease.

K MacGregor August 12, 2013 at 3:54 pm

I definitely think there is a certain image that many women try to cultivate by appearing less intelligent. It doesn’t apply to everyone, because not everyone wants to be that kind of person. But in high school, if you wanted to be in the popular crowd, you had to play dumb – and that didn’t apply to the men. (For both sexes, you had to pretend you didn’t care about anything, especially school). And if you wanted guys to be interested in you, you played dumb. My sister, who is quite bright, is extremely successful in the playing-dumb strategy. I decided long ago that I wasn’t interested in the guys who were interested in dumb girls, and took the geek route. But if you want to be in the popular crowd in school, and have a popular-crowd boyfriend, it’s a tough row to hoe.

I recall reading somewhere at one time that men prefer partners who they can feel superior to, and women prefer partners they can look up to. That does seem to be the case for most people I know – many would obviously prefer someone they could consider their equal, but given the choice, women would go up, men would go down.

Terri Lynn August 12, 2013 at 3:58 pm

I haven’t listened to the podcast yet. I don’t recall feeling pressure to dumb down, at least not consciously. I was simply more interested in boys, gossip and not at all interested in what I was learning in school. I always got decent grades but did not identify with my grades nearly as much as who I was seen with and what I was wearing.

Tracy August 12, 2013 at 4:08 pm

Thank you for asking about this, David. I’m 56, studied Physics and Biochemistry in college (through grad school) and most of the time was not really aware of “pressure” to dumb myself down. Until I met the man who is now my husband. Shortly after we met, I realized that he was the first man I had been with (not dated – just been with, as in talked with, worked with…) – the first man with whom I did NOT feel like I had to “dumb myself down” with.
I also think that the atmosphere of being a woman in graduate school in Physics at the time had something to do with why I never completed a PhD. Until I read “Disciplined Minds” by Jeff Schmidt a year or two ago – which made my “failure” of not getting a PhD make sense, and I realized I actually saved myself. But that’s a whole ‘nother story and only marginally relevant here…
Thank you again for bringing up the topic!

Jaimi August 12, 2013 at 5:31 pm

I wouldn’t say I felt pressured to dumb anything down, but I did feel pressure to not be “geeky”. My mom often called me a “closet geek” because I loved video games, star trek, and science, but rarely let other people know. Later in life I began to run with people who liked the same things as me, but I was often mortified when they got to talking about DnD or World of Warcraft in public.

Oddly enough I met my husband through World of Warcraft, where females were often worshiped as a rarity. He has a degree in physics and I am a master’s prepared RN, so I used my love of science for my career, and often have heady conversations with my husband who challenges me every day. As we raise our daughter, who is now two, we are working to make sure she sees her intelligence, at whatever level it may be, as something wonderful and empowering.

David August 12, 2013 at 6:32 pm

D&D is so interesting because it carries the ultimate geek taboo. Even those who have resigned themselves to geekdom completely, people who wear Boba Fett t-shirts and watch Dr Who marathons, are still afraid to mention D&D.

What I’ve learned is that there is a surprisingly large proportion of the population who has at least played it. In casual conversations I will often drop phrases like “18 charisma” or a “plus 1” something or other, just to see who I get a knowing glance from.

Jen August 13, 2013 at 7:44 pm

That’s interesting, because I always forget that since college, I’ve surrounded myself with people like me. I can do that in the Boston area. I’m pretty sure that at least 90% of my friends have played D&D, though most of them prefer some other game system. I’d also guess that around 50% of them currently play some type of tabletop or live action role-playing game. Most of my friends also have other interests that very few people share, so the general attitude isn’t ‘you like that? how weird…’ but rather ‘you like that? how cool, I don’t know anything about it!’

David August 12, 2013 at 5:46 pm

Whoa, quite a response here, and some definite themes emerging. But it seems to be quite a complicated issue, that doesn’t hinge completely on sex or gender.

Thanks everyone for your anecdotes and opinions, I’m still reading them.

Kate August 12, 2013 at 11:39 pm

Thanks for this post. I’m really loving all the comments.

Even now at 33, when I have something to contribute to a discussion I often hold back. I’m afraid of coming across as an emotional woman rather than rational person, especially when discussing politics or current events.

In school I held back my opinions around the cool kids so I wouldn’t stand out. But I also held back with my nerd friends… I always really wanted to play D&D in school but didn’t think that they’d accept a girl (especially a cheerleader who would be presumably daft).

As I’ve come into my 30’s I’m letting many of those inhibitions go. I am learning though, that much of my self-censorship is part of a greater pattern. Personality and confidence surely plays a part, but media teaches us from a very young age that girls are for looking at and boys are for doing important things. I feel strongly that this gender division is worse now that it’s ever been. If you step outside your gender box you will be labeled strange (at best) or GAY (Egad!!).

My daughter (9) is not your typical girly girl; though she loves glittery pretty things, she also likes geology, zombies and Minecraft. Even though I can’t shield her from the media’s influence I hope that my own is strong enough to make her question the mold that she’s supposed to conform to and that she’ll be proud of her smarts and her vast interests… and speak up when she has the right answer!

Lanie August 12, 2013 at 6:22 pm

Maybe the premise of the show was flawed to begin with. Teenage girls are deemed ‘ditzy’, but teenage boys are deemed immature and reckless. So who is to say that if you put both the boys and the girls TOGETHER on the show, the girls would have done worse, and the boys would have known the answers? If the purpose was to prove that teenage girls are just as smart as boys, it would have made more sense to put both of them together on the show and asked them the same questions.

As for the dumbing down, I don’t think society tells women to make themselves appear less intelligent, it just enforces from a very early age that fundamentally your role in society as a woman is to marry and procreate, and that a man’s is to be successful and make a lot of money ( and eventually marry and procreate). So the emphasis is to be attractive and basically do what is necessary to attract a man. It’s not to be a successful career woman. So when girls hit puberty they start to focus more on appearance and wanting the boy they have a crush on to like them, than getting straight As in school. Picture a 35 year old, unmarried, childless, highly successful career woman. Now picture a 35 year old stay at home father who is supported by his wife. The woman is viewed as not being nurturing ( as in not a ‘real’ woman) and the man is viewed as being ‘weak’ as in not a ‘real’ man.

I also believe it’s a matter of biology. Women are fundamentally different from men physically as well as emotionally because we are the ones who bear the children. When girls hit puberty they seek an emotional connection with males ( as women do throughout relationships), and those connections become much more fundamental in a woman’s life opposed to males who compartmentalize their lives and hold all the compartments relatively equal. So it suddenly becomes more important to a teenage girl to be pretty and liked by that boy she has a crush on, than to get straight As in school. When women get together, for the most part, they discuss their relationships with either their significant others, or their kids. Men will discuss their family, their job, the game last night, and 4 other topics in the same amount of time. The weights given to each are different for each gender.

Georgeann Sack August 12, 2013 at 7:18 pm

The pressure to fit the average is certainly there, but I have responded to it differently. As a teenager I was rejected by my peers. Rather than dumb myself down I disappeared entirely. I retreated inwards. It wasn’t until grad school that I came back out again, in the supportive environment of scientists. I lived in Los Angeles at the time, and outside the university I was still rejected by people my age. They asked what I did. I said I was a neuroscientist. They said, “oh, you must be really smart” and walked away shortly after. I assume this is because 1) I cannot help them with their movie career 2) they are emotionally repulsed by science 3) they are insecure about their own intelligence or 4) they assume we will have nothing to talk about.

I am 31 now and have just recently had a revelation – it is important not to confuse insecurity with misogyny or negative judgment.

Men, especially nerdy ones, can often seem like they are excluding women: not inviting them to things, ignoring their comments or ideas, not making eye contact. Just give them a few compliments or affirmative responses (assuming you have some genuine ones to give) and suddenly you exist. I am sure this is even more true during teenage years. The surprising thing to me is that the same is true for women of all ages. Everyone just wants to have their existence validated and to be told that they are doing okay at life. For proof, take a look at Facebook.


SBurge August 12, 2013 at 7:46 pm

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

e. e. cummings

Katie Long August 12, 2013 at 8:35 pm

Author and psychologist JoAnn Deak wrote a wonderful book titled “Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters”. In chapter 3, she discusses the preadolescent years. Just a few pages in, she sites a 1993 study by Carol Gilligan. “Girls themselves–seemed to almost intentionally fall out of focus, disappear by choice into the crowd.” This appears to be the same study you linked in the beginning of your article. Deak refers to this natural preadolescent phase as “camouflaging” and considers it a “crucial event of the tween years”. She goes on about the pros and cons of camouflaging, and some great tactics on how to understand and encourage tweens in the right direction without damaging or sacrificing the needed protection of their faux-selves as they develop their true selves in the safe and protected environment underneath. It’s a really fascinating read and I encourage every mother to purchase a copy for her parental repertoire. It has helped educate me in many areas of female psychological development as I have built my new non-profit focused on increasing the self-esteem of our Little Ladies.

Kathleen August 12, 2013 at 9:20 pm

Just about all the comments I’ve read here have resonated with me. I’ve always felt smart in SCHOOL – I always got good grades and was pretty comfortable in the classroom. It was when I entered the work force that I started to feel like an idiot – like somewhere along the line, being good at school didn’t translate over to the “real” world. I have had male AND female bosses/supervisors that made me question my own abilities and weaken my confidence. One supervisor told me that I intimidate people because I have a college degree and am a young white female – that hit me hard because at the time I was working for a nonprofit which served a mostly African-American population. It made me feel guilty for being who I am. I look at my husband and realize that he never has the feeling at his workplace that he’s not capable, and no one tries to make him feel that way.

I do think I lack a lot of confidence as a female. I’ve realized that growing up, while my dad was an academic (a biology professor) my mom often acted “dumber” than she was. My dad carried on academic/intellectual conversations with his colleagues and peers, but my mom never took part in those kinds of conversations – even though she too has a college degree. I did not feel comfortable with my own “voice” and as a kid I was very much withdrawn into myself. School was the only place I was comfortable – and when I left school, in some ways it’s like I reverted to the shy, unconfident person I always was at home. I graduated Summa Cum Laude and yet it’s been a difficult transition for me out of university in terms of feeling like I deserve the kind of job I want and speaking up for myself in a work setting.

Even though I KNOW women are unfairly socialized/conditioned to be this way – to worry more about looks than smarts, and to be “agreeable” and to cater to men and the male gaze – it’s very difficult to internalize this knowledge. I still struggle every day to accept that I deserve to be heard, and that I’m worthy of the kind of career I want.

Cherry Odelberg August 12, 2013 at 9:52 pm

Growing up, I just wanted to be “enough.” It really didn’t matter if it was smart enough, pretty enough, or talented enough. So, I tried everything. Maybe if I could be superwoman, I would be enough – be worthy-be noticed.

Once grown, I found out that it’s not nice to succeed above your peers – especially not your spouse. Men will feel threatened by a successful woman.

Cathy August 12, 2013 at 9:53 pm

I haven’t read the responses yet – but I can’t wait to do so! I discussed this with my 13 year old daughter, and she is, thankfully, not at all a “typical” teenage girl. She’s never been one to wear dresses, play with dolls, or paint her nails. She’s been an independent and unique female since she was a baby. So I don’t worry too much about peer pressure affecting her ability to express her intelligence. I once asked her if she minded the other kids mocking or “not getting” her – to which she replied, “Mom, if I cared what they think, I wouldn’t be the person I am”. I hugged her and told her to HOLD ONTO THAT! For a 12 year old to articulate that level of mature self-image made an impact on me.
But – as I said, she is atypical. And after reading your post to her and asking her about it, I think most of the girls in her school are atypical. She attends an alternative school, so by nature those that attend are interested in other than mainstream pursuits – many artistic and creative kids attend school with her. She said without pause that she would, of course, want to answer all the questions correctly.
If I reflect on my own teenage experiences, I remember:
I was smart, though not geeky or genius. I was very articulate. I enjoyed being smart. I loved being praised by my parents, teachers, and best friend about how smart I was! Not once did I ever feel like I had to be less intelligent.
I was interested in makeup, boys, cars, horses, and music. I cared very deeply about how I appeared to my friends, both male and female. I didn’t make friends easily – and in hindsight I am sure part of it was my smarty-girl attitude. It hurt that I wasn’t “popular”. I believed I was fat. I felt my nose was too wide. I wondered why a lot girls didn’t like me and why boys didn’t ask me out. But thankfully I didn’t know how to do it any differently. I wore the “right” clothes, and tried to fit in – but I guess on some level I was unable to understand the social rules. Maybe there was an expectation that not caring about school was good. But I was never aware of it. I placed great value on being smart, getting good grades, and being accepted to a great college.

Having a son (15) and a daughter (13), I can say with absolute certainty that there is a huge change in study habits, responsibility, and thoroughness when the kids hit 7th and 8th grade. It’s maddening to see your formerly “on top of it” kids start to forget to turn in homework, do poorly on tests, and answer “I don’t know” or I don’t remember” when I ask them for details about their school day. However, note that I have a SON and a DAUGHTER. I think adolescence is a stormy time for everyone.

I would like to know more about the show. For example, was there only one age range? The behaviors, and answers, may prove very different when asked of 17- and 18- year olds. Also – were the same questions asked of males in the same age group? It’s possible that many of the same questions would prove difficult for any teen and pre-teen. Unfortunately, this is probably a statement about the education the kids in general are receiving from school, home, and entertainment combined.
Lastly, I’d like to suggest that if the goal of the show was to make these girls out as role model for others, then having them race up and down the aisle to get a “cute boy” to autograph an arm is reprehensible. Really! If I imagine my daughter being asked to compete against other females to win the signature of a boy on her arm, I’d feel nauseated. Yuck!

Thanks for posing this question. I am eager to listen to This American Life, and to read the other responses.

slimepanda August 12, 2013 at 10:06 pm

I am an 18 year old female and I, through my high school career i have constantly been pushed to not be myself. With my extensive knowledge of video games, science, mythology, science fiction and comic book lore… I was pressured. Typically though the pressure would only arise when i was (as the other girls called it) “dressing pretty”. A lot of times it felt as if i couldn’t be myself but i pushed past that because they were not the ones living in my body in my mind i was.

Nancy August 12, 2013 at 10:16 pm

My daughters are 25 and 27 and when they went to high school the group they hung around with was very comfortable with their intelligence and capable enough to run the school newspaper, (and many other pursuits) and they all went on to have good careers. I raised them that way too and their father encouraged them both to be strong women in all aspects of life. In fact, the idea of being infatuated with boys because of their looks made no sense to any of these girls…they all knew that ‘personality and strong character traits’ were much more important. That being said, when my son was in grade 7, one of his best friends opted out of “being smart” so he could hang around with the ‘regular guys’ and left my son in the lurch…so, my son skipped grade 8 and went straight to high school… so long slacker!

Cathy August 12, 2013 at 10:28 pm

Reading other responses brought some memories back to me.
I took “Aviation Science” in high school and I was the only female in class. I loved being a trailblazer. But even though I was interested in wood shop, and metal shop, I never signed up for them. Those classes were not for girls. I still wish I’d had the courage to do it!
As a young adult I can remember feeling dismayed, angry, and betrayed by men I admired. Men who recognized my intelligence …and then succumbed to the first hair-flip or batted eyelash that came their way. I was dumbfounded, and disgusted, and disillusioned, on more than one occasion. But I despised that “kind” of woman, even while I longed for a loving, respectful, (and smart!) companion. Clearly biological imperatives work on all of us to different degrees.

Fred Bement August 13, 2013 at 5:06 am

Here are the aforementioned sisters: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=du2MR59lnrA

Can you tell which is which?

Stephanie August 13, 2013 at 6:07 am

Definitely. When I was in high school (I’m 32 now), I was one of the smartest kids. There were a couple boys who I suspect were smarter, but they were usually too lazy to excel academically. I wanted to get good grades, and I did: straight As, valedictorian, the whole thing. I started out at one high school, where it quickly became clear that the combination of my being smart AND outspoken in class was going to get me exactly zero friends. After 2 1/2 years, I transferred schools for the simple reason that I couldn’t take the social isolation anymore. I transferred to a very large school where I was still the top of my class, but I made a very, very conscious effort not to let it show obviously. This wasn’t easy, because I needed to participate enough in class to maintain my good grades without participating so much that everyone began hating me again. Outside the classroom, I cultivated a party-girl image and actually succeeded in becoming fairly popular. I remember feeling especially proud a few days after graduation while at a large house party. A kid from my graduating class, with whom I had been at many parties before, suddenly did a double-take when he realized I was standing next to him drinking beer. “Oh my god! Our valedictorian is drinking!” I reminded him that this wasn’t the first time we had partied together, and he told me he had never realized I was good in school. It felt like a victory.
Today, I think it’s pretty awful that I felt like this act was necessary back then. I’m very introverted, so this was definitely me playing a part. But I can confirm that being seen as a smart girl in the high school years can definitely get you into trouble in other areas of life and make you feel like an untouchable.

CB August 13, 2013 at 9:12 am

I’m 31. I think there is social pressure for women not to appear too smart, too outspoken lest we get labelled a ‘bitch’ and to not make others around us feel ‘less than.’ Ironic.

I know I often stay quiet in conversations for just those reasons. I am not as introverted or shy as I appear. I have lots of life experiences, but for the sake of not wanting others to feel ‘less than’ for not having the travel experiences I muzzle myself. In the past year or so I’ve taken to mentally reminding myself in conversation that its ok to share all my intelligence; but since this self-muzzling has been going on so long its proving a tough habit to break.

Finding other women to ‘geek out’ with is also really difficult. Its difficult when I get excited about a topic, share it with my friends, only to be met with ‘why on earth would you be interested in THAT?’ Or we couch our true interests as ‘guilty pleasures’ and laugh at them.

In a few days I’ll be moving cross-country to start a new job, and I hope that I can finally have the courage to let all my colors show – opinions of others and societal pressures be damned.

j_arbutus August 13, 2013 at 1:41 pm

I’m 17 and live in small town, rural, America, and I’ve never felt this pressure myself – but I’ve also never wanted to be/tried to be “popular” or “cool”. I took AP Calc and AP Stats in the same year and am proud of the 2180 I got on my SATs…

But the girls who try to be “popular” (all of whom I’ve known since they and I were in kindergarten) dumb themselves down. A lot. Some of them were in the same advanced classes I was in middle school and now they’re failing out of Pre-Calc. It makes no sense. They’re more worried about how the 10 tons of makeup they put on every morning makes them look and what the hottest gossip is.

But there are also a lot of girls just like me who are pushing themselves, who come to school without makeup, who aren’t that worried about their baggy sweatshirt making them look fat because it’s comfy as fuck. They study for their SATs, maybe even take them twice. They take all the AP classes they can. They have dreams of becoming oceanographers and teachers and engineers and they’re not worried what the “cool” kids think about that because the cool kids aren’t cool to them. Cool to them is being yourself and pushing yourself.

Lydia August 13, 2013 at 6:52 pm

I am 33. I am a graduate student working on my PhD and I work a part-time job on the side. Just the other day, a co-worker said I made him feel stupid after I shared what I am working on at school. This has been a common response, which makes me less inclined to mention what I do with “outsiders.” I have been told my education and enthusiasm for my work intimidates others (mostly by men). This is very frustrating! I think for myself part of the problem has to do with being taught as a girl to “be nice.” Making others feel stupid is, of course, not nice. But I believe (after many years of trying) that it is exhausting and unnecessary to edit parts of myself to accommodate the potential insecurities of others. I rather make friends that except all of my nerdy qualities!

Jen August 13, 2013 at 7:17 pm

I just turn 36, and grew up in New England. In my experience, the pressure was there, but my mom had inoculated me. It was clear that a large set of girls in middle school and high school thought less of me because I was interested in being smart instead of being popular. But since I thought that opinion automatically made them idiots, it didn’t matter. There were other smart girls, though not a lot of them. The popular girls hung out with the popular girls, the popular boys hung out with the popular boys, and the smart kids of whatever gender hung out together. It worked reasonably well for a reasonable number of people, and I only had rocks thrown at me once. :)

Jennifer August 13, 2013 at 9:03 pm

I am 23 years old and live in a big city in Canada. I’ve certainly felt the pressure from the media and peers to look good, though sometimes I’m just too lazy to give a shit haha. You can see that those that act like complete idiots on TV (e.g. Jersey Shore, Toddlers and Tiaras) are being rewarded, further perpetuating the message that in order to become someone, you have to be stupid, although this goes for men and women. It’s no secret that women and girls have major self-esteem and body image issues. But overall in my experience, the desire to be successful and demonstrate my intelligence far outweight the pressure to be attractive and dumb, it’s hard for me to even call it ‘pressure’ as I don’t really find it an issue for me.

My family immigrated from Vietnam to Canada decades ago, and as you know, many Asian cultures stress academic excellence. My mom would have loved it if I became a doctor, lawyer, professor etc. At the same time, she cares about image a lot (which is a whole other issue that I could go on about). Not that she expects us to look perfect or show off skin, but it’s clear that if she finds someone pretty, they are viewed more favourably in her eyes. And that goes for a lot of people I know, even myself sometimes. That being said, she and other family members don’t equate image with stupidity, those are two seperate things that don’t necessarily go hand in hand. So part of it is that my family instilled in me the value of having something between my ears.

Growing up, I never had the burning desire to be popular in school. Sure, I wished I was more outgoing and had more friends, but being Queen B wasn’t on my prirorities list. But I remember some girls in my school that weren’t like that. They concentrated on wearing too much makeup, going to parties, going after a guy’s attention etc. And then you see it all over facebook and instagram, girls posing for attention. I am not completely innocent of this either, I am really active on social media and of course I get excited when someone comments or likes a post of mine, and especially if a lot of people like it. The age of the internet is a self-indulgent one full of narcissictic people and I’m not excluding myself from this criticism. But pigs will fly before you see me posting a bikini mirror selfie on instagram with a dumbass quote from a cheesy love song that has NOTHING to do with the photo for attention.

I guess in terms of the whole male/female dynamic, I know some guys are intimidated by a woman who is more successful or smarter than they are. Some women who are powerful are seen as bitchy (an assessment made even by other women) rather than someone to look up to, whereas men don’t have that problem. Of course nowadays, there’s a shift in that mentality but it’s still very much a problem in the workplace, politcal sphere and basically any other facet of life.

So in short, I think there is still pressure on women to look good and as a result, hide her intelligence, not flaunt it. Because if a woman looks good, then automatically attention falls on that, not what’s inside her head. The same could be said for men, however. But, it’s not the same kind of pressure as in our society, men are not objectified to the extent that women are and men still hold the majority of top positions in companies and other institutions.

All this is NOT to make anyone feel sorry for women, it’s just how I see it. There are a lot of women out there that serve as role models…successful, powerful, intelligent, the list goes on. Like I said, I don’t really feel this pressure. My sister doesn’t either as she cares a lot about academics, even if she also cares about her looks and going out and having a good time (nothing wrong with that). Same with other girls I know. I try to surround myself with females (and males) that don’t feel the need to dumb themselves down.

Amanda August 14, 2013 at 12:01 am

Thanks for asking this question, David!

I think how “smart” a person acts is based on a lot of things and makes it pretty complex, but gender is definitely a factor. While I always maintained top grades in school, I actively avoided answering questions in class (if you don’t make eye contact with the teacher you’re far less likely to be called upon). I think the resolve to maintain good marks and be very active in extra-curriculars stemmed from a few things. I grew up in a home where education was highly valued and looks not so much. After noticing that the “less smart” girls got more attention, especially from guys, I distinctly remember trying out a “ditzy” voice at home one day only for my mother to say, rather sharply, “Don’t make yourself sound stupider than you are.” I never used that voice again. I had a peer group that was equally as intelligent as I, though that’s not to say we never gossiped. I’ve also always been quite tall (just over 6’0”) and so was already intimidating to people around me, especially guys, so the incentive to be less intimidating by acting less smart was never particularly strong. I did cultivate a few attributes that were a bit more rebellious (no one expected the straight A student to swear like a sailor). I have also always resented the “she’s soooooooo smart” characterization as, to me, it passes off intelligence or academic performance as an innate characteristic, rather than largely dependent on good old fashioned hard work.

I’m 27 now and I find a lot of these dynamics continue to this day. I often sit back and observe in meetings or social situations. This is partly because I’m naturally a bit more introverted, but also because part of me is hoping someone will say what I’m thinking before I have to. While I am very goal and achievement oriented, I tend not to volunteer information about my accomplishments. When I tell people that I studied biochemistry and microbiology in undergrad, or that I just completed my MSc, the way they look at me and talk to me often changes, because now I am “sooooooo smart” again. That I worked my butt off and actively chose to pursue my strengths (I worked twice as hard to get Bs in first year English than to get As in biology and chemistry, making sciences the obvious choice, and pursued graduate education knowing that I learn most efficiently in a classroom setting) doesn’t seem to matter. I’ve learned to try to surround myself with others who are equally as driven and intellectual as I am, who support me to achieve more rather than being intimidated. And I do my best to return the favour while accepting that this may limit my relationships (romantic and, to a lesser extent, platonic). Being able to be authentic is more important anyways.

Ellie August 14, 2013 at 3:23 am

This is interesting. I’m currently studying for a PhD in computer science having completed my first degree in Engineering from Cambridge University UK in 2001. I’ve watched other women at Cambridge play ditzy and dumb, when clearly they have straight As all the way through. I’ve had a fellow male Cambridge grad be unable to talk to me about football (soccer) even though I was following it closely at the time. I have always been called intimidating, although at 5′ 3″ and 110 lbs it’s hardly for my physical presence. As an undergrad, three of us engineering girls used to get people to guess which degree we were studying. Normally the answer was languages – never engineering. Fortunately for me I’ve never been particularly interested in fitting in!

The results of my last experiment have forced me to look into gender studies recently. I would recommend “Women Don’t Ask” (http://www.womendontask.com/) by Babcock and Laschever, for an interesting tour through some academic studies on adults of all ages, and a look at where we pick up the gender roles from. There is also an interesting aside that people who are members of a minority often do not believe that they are treated the same way as the rest of the minority, even though they recognise others are. I would have to admit that that fits with my experience!

Keith August 14, 2013 at 5:53 am

Obviously a lot of complex issues here, but I just wanted to observe that the outcome might at least partly be an example of stereotype threat (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stereotype_threat). Girls on a women’s network answering questions to a guy? That might intend to say that girls are smart, but actually just imply/reinforce that girls are “supposed” to be dumb.

There’s a good lecture by Greg Walton that goes into the implications of this as part of Stanford’s “How to Think Like a Psychologist” series: https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/how-to-think-like-psychologist/id513506131

meg August 14, 2013 at 10:12 am

I’m 58, and grew up in a rural area in Indiana that was at best 15-20 years behind the times. I was always conscious of the dumbing-down that women were expected to do around men (“I Love Lucy” and other t.v. shows, plus my own mother and other female relatives), but something in me just couldn’t do it. When I was 10 or 11, my grandfather read my name in the local school honor roll list in the newspaper, and came over to see me. This was a big deal because he was Catholic and my mother married a Protestant, and therefore I was a heathen and barely to be acknowledged. But making the honor roll superceded all other considerations, even religion! He also put the idea into my head that I could go to college, a notion that gave me a positive, yet rebellious, identity in a family that had many sweet, pretty girls who became prom and homecoming queens. I was also deaf, which made me really weird in a small school with no other handicapped children (they were institutionalized or kept at home in those days). Being a brain and trying to out-brain everyone, from other girls to any boy to even teachers and principals was my chosen role in life. I often failed at this (I’m not all that smart, as I eventually learned), but it kept me going, and keeps me going to this day. I tried to tone down the brain-range with one long-term relationship, but in the end I only married brilliant men. Of course they have their own driving intelligence and the clash of intellectual wills can be fierce. Is the clash gender-based, culturally based, or just the result of the difficulty of finding an emotional “home” with someone equally intellectual? I still don’t know. But there are ways of creating something workable without selling out, and that took a long time to learn.

Georgeann Sack August 14, 2013 at 12:15 pm

I was thinking about this question again. The truth is, I have never felt the need to dumb myself down because I think I am stupid. Whatever the world thinks of me, and others seem to think I am very smart, that doesn’t translate into positive feelings about my own intelligence. I am constantly struggling to understand, throwing myself into things where I am not an expert and having to learn as I go. I feel constantly inadequate and unlovable. Sheryl Sandberg has some interesting things to say about this in Lean In. She quotes Ken Auletta saying “self-doubt becomes a form of self-defense.” Then continues with “In order to protect ourselves from being disliked, we question our abilities and downplay our achievements…We put ourselves down before others can.” (from chapter 3 “Success and Likeability”)


Lindsay August 14, 2013 at 1:38 pm

For me and for my high-school same-age friends, the answer to the question you asked is “sort of.” I don’t believe many of us in that small group of girl geeks felt much pressure (at least from anywhere that mattered) to appear less smart or less geeky. But it was understood that seeming smart and geeky would be a barrier to dating boys, at least until college, and that there was a choice between being geeky and being ‘feminine’ (with all the accoutrements thereof).

Jael August 14, 2013 at 1:53 pm

I am, sadly, intensely familiar with the pressure not to seem smart. When men display intelligence or education, they are positively viewed. When women do it, this culture says they are “lording it over” others. It’s viewed negatively.

Worse, it was made crystal clear to me growing up that my only real purpose was to be somebody’s wife, and subsequently (absolutely it must be subsequently) somebody’s mother. Being too smart was a serious impediment to that goal. It was expressed to me in a thousand ways, every single day, that not only was appearance and social grace critically important (and in me, lacking), but that the thing I did have in spades – intelligence – was a disability for a female.

I learned early on to be nonthreatening. I never got especially good at masking being smart, because people were generally onto me pretty fast (and the snide comments would start). But I learned to shy away from competition because it was just uncouth to beat out guys. In fact, in both middle school and high school, when I had the highest grades in my class, they awarded a “high boy” and “high girl” award for grades without pointing out which was higher. I’m sure this was for my protection. That’s how pervasive this attitude was in the culture in which I was raised (Southern US, 1970s).

Chris August 14, 2013 at 3:32 pm

For me, even though I grew up in a restrictive, Catholic and patriarchal culture, I certainly had no problem appearing intelligent, although I did encounter some men who were intimidated by me. My mother once gave me this advice: find a man who knows how smart you are, because that’s the only way you can get respect. (I suspect she is speaking from experience…)

Intelligence is one thing. But it doesn’t mean there are no pressures to look or act a certain way. I know women who talk differently when they are around men. I know women who change their entire lifestyles when they get a new boyfriend. My own mother was reduced to wearing a sort of approved uniform by my father. Appearing dumber is not the only trick we learn to accommodate men. And we all learn that.

Akasha August 14, 2013 at 7:12 pm

A woman can not be steered away from intellectual pursuits. If she is then she is not the one guiding her ship. This may be another issue but then again, all is good and everything is exactly as it should be.

Filipa Ribeiro August 15, 2013 at 8:04 am

Well, answering yes to this question may seem arrogant, but the truth is that yes, I felt that pressure. From 3 people actually: another woman, a man and myself.
Another woman example: recently a common friend of mine and of that other woman told me that she felt bad whenever she was with me because she felt I get bored whenever I go out with her. She also feels bad because, according to her, she learns a lot when she is with me but she get overwhelmed with the stuff I know. This was a shock to me, because I am not a very social person and definitely I don’t see myself talking about intellectual stuff when I am with other people, I just follow whatever is being discussed. The funny thing is that I always want to be like that other girl and be happy only with fancy places, painted nails, diets, guys, etc. I still didn’t succeed on that matter.
The man example: once a friend with whom I used to go hiking told me unexpectedly: “I would love to date you but you are so much smarter than I am, that I don’t think I could keep up”. I was happy that he thought that way mainly because I didn’t want to date him, but I was frustrated because I disagree with him and because I wanted to keep him as a friend.
Myself example can be read between the lines of what I wrote above ;)

dina August 15, 2013 at 12:51 pm

There are tons of girls who have genuine interests in things like video games, comic books, anime, etc. and it’s infuriating when so many people speculate that they are pretending to like these things to get attention from men

dina August 15, 2013 at 12:51 pm

There are tons of girls who have genuine interests in things like video games, comic books, sports, anime, etc. and it’s infuriating when so many people speculate that they are pretending to like these things to get attention from men

TravelBug-Susan August 15, 2013 at 10:05 pm

It started in middle school many years ago. I didn’t fit in with the other girls. We lived in Southern California. I wasn’t a surfer and I wasn’t one of the “intellectuals,” although I was smart. I felt no need to dumb down, but then I wasn’t going to win any popularity contests. I considered myself an outcast.

In 9th grade we moved to a small town in Oregon. Over the summer I met some very friendly, intelligent girls. When school started they invited me to join them and were very welcoming. I felt more at home.

At 60 years of age, I am able to look back and understand that I was a geek…very interested in Star Trek (way back when it started) and I loved sci-fi and fantasy (The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings).

No way was I going to dumb myself down! I was also a rebel and independent thinker. I turned out just fine, but I never respected the girls who faked being dumb to make men feel more manly.

Alice August 16, 2013 at 4:50 am

I’m 23 and British, so I don’t know how relevant my experience is, but here it is anyway. When I was in secondary school I was in “top set”, and there was a lot of stigma attached to that, I got stick from my other friends for being a “boff” and doing “geeky” things like playing in the school orchestra. I didn’t give a crap. However, it was definitely not gender-based. The male members of my class got exactly the same treatment, and the only top-set kids who didn’t were the boys and girls who demonstrated that they were “cool” in other ways (taking drugs and going to rock concerts). Obviously these attitudes are concerning and depressing – but in my experience they weren’t only directed at girls. One thing that would be interesting to know – did the quiz show vet the contestants beforehand and specifically look for bright girls? I mean it’s obvious that you’ll always get some people who are brighter than others, so I find it very hard to believe that in a country that big they couldn’t find bright teenage girls, unless they weren’t looking hard enough. If girls don’t put their hands up as much it may also be due to other things, not necessarily not wanting to look clever. For example, just feeling less confident or not wanting to impose themselves. Lastly, I’ve been told by several men that they found me attractive because I wasn’t afraid to argue with them on points of politics or history, and according to them that’s quite rare in women. Which, if true, is very sad. But again, it could be more bout confidence than wanting to appear dumb.

AJ August 16, 2013 at 6:18 am

When I was around 15, my older sister told me not to be so ‘loud and clever’ when around others because I was ‘making others feel stupid’ and no one likes that so they would never hang out with me. She implied that this was why I hadn’t yet had a boyfriend while other girls my age had. I refused to dumb myself down though; I thought she gave supremely stupid advice.

Caroline Devitt August 16, 2013 at 8:03 am

“Did you ever feel pressure?” YES! Lots of men are intimated, or at least turned off, by intelligent or successful women, even these days. And lots of women are jealous of intelligent or successful women unless we’re pig-ugly as well. Both groups will be overtly or covertly vindictive towards you. (I’m British and have lived in sveral European countries, but not the US. And, as you can probably tell, I’m a woman. :-) )

Love your site, by the way – I’ve only just discovered it.

Caroline Devitt August 16, 2013 at 8:07 am

Sorry, I meant ‘intimidated’, not ‘intimated’!

Sandra August 16, 2013 at 10:50 am

In primary school (ages 5-12) I was probably the top of the class, made teachers pet, and routinely shunned by both genders. I remember crying in private after nobody would sit beside me on the bus to go on one of the annual school tours.

In secondary school (ages 12-18) I went to an all-girls school. I found some geeky peers and we hung out together. This was way easier to deal with, but the slings and arrows and hurtful comments from the “popular” girls (usually about appearance) were an occasional obstacle.

I remember having a really bad hair day as a teenager, and one of the gorgeous, cruel creatures on the school bus barely waited for me to get out of earshot before exclaiming to her equally intensely-groomed friend, “Did. You. See. The. Fringe!?!” I went straight home that day instead going into school, because I just couldn’t cope with the pain and embarrassment of it.

If I had known any guys as a teenager, I probably would have down-played my mind, not as a way to avoid scaring them off, but because I associated being thought of as brainy with being isolated and ridiculed.

(Maybe karma struck though, because the following week, that girl who made me feel so bad tottered back to the school bus on the way home, and I overheard her describing her mortification as she walked away from the group of boys she was trying to impress, when she realized her skirt had been tucked into her pants all along!)

Tirzah August 16, 2013 at 1:31 pm

Coming in late…but yes, I did and I do feel pressure about this. I’m very intelligent, very good in school, and if it’s not making some guys feel threatened because I’m better at something they think they should be better than me at, it’s about not bragging, or not making other people feel bad because they didn’t do as well, or some sort of pressure to not let on that I’m doing really well.

At this point in my life, I’ve reduced that pressure to what I still impose on myself from decades of conditioning, but I’ve internalized it to the point where it took me a year to even consider pursuing a doctorate.

You mentioned how free you felt to pursue your geeky interests, but I note that none of those interests were stereotypically female interests. I think that played a bigger part in things than you realize. I’ve never had a man feel threatened that I’m a good knitter, or that I can chop vegetables rapidly, but feats of strength and intellect are perceived as threatening.

It Calls Me Onanon August 17, 2013 at 12:37 pm

I think anyone who has their eyes open can look back on their past and understand that they’re shaped by their environment/culture/society and experiences. It’s a generally accepted idea these days, regardless if you’re not too familiar with it. We’re in the year 2013, where, even in the 70’s people had already been hovering around this idea. It’s not new.

The real nugget of interesting, controversial thought is in deconstructing why we as humans with differing psychologies respond to ques at all, since it’s not something that one, even as a female, is required to reciprocate. I’ve seen a lot of people in these comments say that it “felt like the right thing to do” or muse on the idea of consequences. Even the people who are polar-opposite by choice of being against ever “dumbing” themselves down think in terms of the benefits they’ll get from their actions. The common pattern is their insecurity and need for safety—and how their psychological evaluation of the situation aims for the circumstantial benefit or resolve of it. To be honest, none of the subjective experience-based information offered to explain why these people do what they do makes a difference because it comes down a very objectively simple observation –they all skip the information that answers to why they as humans have changed their positions in the present time (assuming that most of these people are aware of their past actions and strive to no longer do what they did).

They’re aware. Ignorance plays a big part in founding an individual’s “personality” because it forms a base for their insecurities. People later react and form boundaries—colored by whatever culture or society or gender or experience one was developed in. Within these terms people seek safety through benefit and realistically, after that, the only way to maintain safety is by isolating themselves from anything that opposes what they’ve constructed of themselves—their “personality” becomes a structure they respond to by default and the typical person continues to develop without looking back. That’s why people find themselves reacting to the same fundamentally insecurity-provoking things and avoiding confrontations that poke holes in their artificial resolves and reveal their hypocrisies. People write over their insecurities in all manner of ways (and thus we have the field of psychology to observe this—see “useless”) and that’s why the subjective observations about culture, society and gender don’t really make a difference–because they’re starting the conversation from the middle—skipping the part that will answer to why they’re the same as everyone else in the progression of pattern in their actions. To me, all of these people, even the ones who frame that they are better off now and behave differently, are still the same as the women who dumb themselves down… they’re just developed further down the road. Insecurity/offended argument made, cherish the ones who don’t respond that way — they’re the only ones who aren’t masturbating over themselves.

It Calls Me Onanon September 2, 2013 at 11:20 am

Found myself thinking about this topic again and reaching a simple observation:

If you were to look at the world objectively and conclude that it doesn’t have any meaning — no subjective meaning — then you must conclude, logically, that humans project meaning onto everything.

That being said, in most culture industries, school is little more than a playground for ignorant persons whose only reality is to consume the swaths of pop culture/standardized beliefs and consequential needs. Kids necessarily form groups that validate themselves in this type of environment because we are all insecure deep down.

It becomes easier as different generations go by to find groups that echo the same sentiments as you because different interests get picked up that suit the changing popular sentiments. For example, making fun of geeks used to be a sentiment, DND used to be a catharsis for the unpopular with no “social skills” to do. This later became video games, but popular culture began to change and so did the idea of what is socially acceptable and these things actually became the majority, where, if you needed validation and security and friends you would want to get into these interests, even superficially.

Then we have those studies of the teen girls. The gender that has the most up for stakes regarding superficial interests. OF COURSE if you have any independent streak you’re going to see these things as superficial and not pursue them — you’re not special because of this, you’re just not an egghead. It’s easier to be ousted just as it’s easier to be ousted as a male with ideas about masculinity. Did you notice the ones with more family support did better through these times? In contrast, did you notice some of the good observations on here that detailed the ethnocentric beliefs that push superficial ideals to “put a blanket” over insecurities?

Of course the show was going to have a bad turn-around…

Really the objective understanding is that, culturally, seeking friends and people is a manufactured “psychological need.” We are ignorant and vulnerable as kids (or as someone else put it “not well-rounded”) so we seek the easiest means to avoid insecurity. The truth is, if one were to be responsible for themselves (mature) and knowledgeable about life, being a “Social Animal” would only mean that we seek to form herds for safety/validation and not as a necessary means of survival. If we understood that, we wouldn’t look outside of ourselves to resolve insecurity and we wouldn’t need to reciprocate and respond to insecure feelings because of it– we would no longer need other people because we’d have peace and happiness with ourselves.

I pity the girls who were either a part of that scene and weren’t required to have a care for intelligence and I think that some of the women on here that subtly call them idiots or look down on them are insecure, selfish human beings. And no, that’s not just a subjective opinion, it’s evidenced by their actions in context with everything.

Andrea August 17, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Because a woman’s value has been placed more in her looks, the amount of time devoted to enhancing and/or maintaining those looks is superbly demanding. Due to this, the likelihood of being able to devote equal dedication or time to the pursuits of the mind dwindles.

Further, I do remember getting nasty looks when I would get high marks in school. In fact, when it would go back and forth between me and one Asian kid in Algebra, no one would blink an eye for him; myself, the guy I had a crush on, I could tell he shied away from me every time I scored higher than he.

In college, I remember getting half the class to dislike me because they had thought I messed up the bell curve after an important test. When I told them I had gotten a couple points less than what the teacher said was the highest score, and a guy stepped forward as that owner, they turned back to what they were doing.

I think this comes back to the way we are raised in that a small boy acting in any way feminine diminishes him, in which case, being completely female makes one less than male. So when a female does well, or better than males in ANY feet, she becomes a threat to his perceived masculinity. If he is less than a female, he is in a worse predicament than when he initially imitated feminine attributes.

It Calls Me Onanon September 6, 2013 at 7:50 pm

“Feminine” attributes are culturally acquired. Most of those traits have a needy logical underpinning. They are passive, dependent, frail and incapable upon confrontation. So, if a woman in a culture like this assigns themselves “feminine” traits, it’s only because it’s beneficial for artificially resolving their insecurities. It doesn’t make them any better at getting over them, it “puts a blanket” over them.

The disdain for you wasn’t because of your gender. You posed a threat to your classmates because you were outside of their collective need to be a part of a social group that carries a sentiment by watching out for one another in the limitation of themselves.

Jeff August 17, 2013 at 6:27 pm

I think the problem is not with gender but with the assumption that “most” high school students are well rounded and in touch with the contemporary world. Frankly, I think most male students would have given similar responses. I’d be curious as to their selection process. I’m suspecting that they didn’t exactly screen for the “reach for the top” students.

Leticia August 18, 2013 at 7:40 am

I am sharp as a tack, I was always cute as a button, I have the uncanny ability to navigate both hard sciences – math, logic, programming – and humanities – graduated in art in college, fluent in multiple languages. That growing up and living in South America – macho country. I found some respect in Boy Scouts – of all places – where my accomplishments and quick wits where appreciated and from few teachers here and there who didn’t feel threatened by such a student. I worked for many years as a programmer and it was tiring to prove at every new job that I was twice as capable but make 30% less than my male counterparts. Dumbing down to please men was never an option for me, so I spent long spells alone. Women here are expected not to get smart in the first place, so I guess I never got with the program.

Andrea August 18, 2013 at 4:22 pm

I’m a 28 year old female, and I can’t exactly say I felt “pressure” to dumb myself down. In high school people would attempt to tease me about how smart I was because I did well in school, but I always found it silly that they were teasing me for being good at something. And luckily, being the one with the brains I could usually shut them up easily with a smart reply. On the opposite of the spectrum, my boyfriend had a lot of trouble in high school being a guy that did well and liked to read. He was fine hanging with the nerdy crowd, but was ostracized by the popular or athletic kids. I’m told by some of my elementary teacher friends that now kids are starting to think the smart kids are cool….I hope thats true. Something is wrong when society shuns intellectuals!

Line August 20, 2013 at 8:47 am

Interesting to read. I am a 19 year old girl from Norway, and I have just begun to study psychology. I will tell you a little bit of my experience from my years in what you call Elementary school and Middle school (if I’m not mistaken). As early as in first grade in Elementary school, I experienced in many occasions being the smartest/best in my class. I appeared more mature and reflected than the other pupils, and I obviously knew a little more than them in some matters. A little too often, the teacher mentioned my name out loud as the only one having all the answers right on a test.

In the first three or four years of Elementary school, this was my brand: the walking and talking encyclopedia who had the answers to all your questions. But I recall the change being in fifth grade or so. Then, suddenly being smart was equal to being a geek, nerd, teacher’s favourite, and so on. Despite that, I continued raising my hand on questions, or even supplying the teacher with fun facts from TV-shows I had seen.

But at the end of Elementary school (which is seventh grade here in Norway), I was really tired of the negative “status” intelligence had, and of being classified as a nerd. At that time, being stupid was cool, and especially NOT doing your homework or paying attention was the key to social acception. So, when we started in eighth grade (the first year of Middle school), my goal was to finally be one of these so-called cool girls who was all above schoolwork.

This resulted in:
– never raising my hand
– intentionally asking everyone around me what the teacher just said
– “forgetting” my books, or other important information
– always answering the teacher, when he asked me, with “oh I’m sorry, I didn’t pay attention”
– listening to music while in class, and so on…

But what the others didn’t know, was that I got good grades on almost all my tests. But nevertheless, my image was nearly changed. But, eventually my teacher mentioned this problem in a conversation with my parents, and he said that I had to be more active in class. So in ninth grade I stopped caring about what other people thought. And, in “High school” (man, you have very different school systems than in Norway), it was suddenly cool to be smart and get good grades. Yay me.

Helen August 21, 2013 at 6:25 am

I think my experience has been quite different. I was born in a small Soviet Republic and first went to school the same year that the Soviet Union collapsed. The Communist ideology was big on equality between the sexes, and even though it was far from perfect, some of it really sank in. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there was of course a huge desire on many fronts to change gears completely, but some things were too deeply ingrained. For instance, in the early 90s, a kind of a “sex revolution” took place – suddenly, the naked female body was everywhere (especially in advertising), and women morphed into “mega-babes”: bleached hair, acrylic nails, micro-minis and everything. (It has toned down since then, although women are still expected to be beautiful, slim and feminine.)

On the other hand, at least I personally have never felt the pressure to be dumb. Of course, this may be particular to my experience. I was a bona fide bookworm as a child, and touted as something of a wunderkind. I was always the best student (or at least one of the best) in my class, and quite popular at that, although there were some awkward years as well.

However, it is true that I stopped raising my hand in the class at some point, mostly due to the willingness to not seem over-eager. It was (and is) cool to be smart and well-read, but not to be the annoying “teacher’s pet”. I must say this tendency has stayed with me to this day – I rarely like to speak up in public, but I’m constantly working at becoming a smarter and more knowledgeable person. All of my pesonal and romantic relationships, too, are based on a mutual respect for the other’s mind, personality and intellect, and I cannot imagine it any other way.

If anything, I feel there is a sterotype of the “good girl” here. That is, girls are expected to be diligent and get good grades, whereas boys can get away with missing school and resisting authority. However, in both cases I feel that intelligence as such is more likely to make one popular, although it’s important not to be seen as sucking up to the teachers.

jo August 22, 2013 at 12:42 pm

I can remember feeling this way when I was a teen, and I think a tiny bit still persists with me today; however, I think it is for a different reason. When I was a teen, I dumbed myself down in front of my friends somewhat because they would make fun of the *smart* kids, and I didn’t want to be made fun of. I regret that. I wish I would have been more *me* and less who they wanted me to be.
Fast forward to today, and I still find myself being like this, but now it isn’t because I’ll be made fun of, but more because I don’t want to come across as a “know-it-all” kind of person. You know, those people who just annoy the crap out of you because they HAVE to be right ALL the time? I’m a pretty smart gal, but when a question arises and I KNOW that I know the correct answer, I’ll answer it now, but a lot of times, I’ll follow it up with a “…I think” or a “…that’s what I’ve been told”…silly still that I cannot give myself credit in front of others for just knowing something!

chacha1 August 22, 2013 at 1:31 pm

I was a know-it-all and proud of it. From age 7, when I was forcibly transplanted from Wisconsin to Georgia, I most definitely saw that girls were meant to be, at best, charming accessories to men. I was so hostile to the whole environment that I did not let this directly affect me – and my parents made it clear I was expected to go to college, so schoolwork was not just a time-killer chez nous.

Girls were not actively discouraged from class participation, but were less likely to be receiving educational enrichment at home, less likely to be called on in class, and less likely to be encouraged to pursue a college career. When they were, it was overtly implied that the purpose must be to secure the “Mrs. degree.” That is, a girl went to college not to become a doctor or lawyer, but to *marry* a doctor or lawyer.

I am now 48 and I have repeatedly observed that women are discouraged from acknowledging their own achievements or knowledge. It is generally understood to be unattractive to know more about anything (except sports) than the men in one’s life.

And I still remember one of my high-school classmates; one of the smartest girls in the school, as well as one of the most beautiful; the sum total of whose ambition was to get married and have children. That’s a great ambition, but it was also (I thought then and still believe) a great waste of raw material.

It is not a coincidence that men in power are STILL trying to roll back women’s rights. This pervasive attitude that women must be less-qualified, less-intelligent, less-independent, less-productive, less-everything except pregnant … ugh.

Eva August 24, 2013 at 10:44 am

I’m not only smart, but tall as well. I can tell you that most men want to feel like the leader, the smartest one, the strongest one and the tallest one. Compared to most of my friends I usually get very little male attention, due to the facts above.

From my experience, both intelligent boys and girls were ostracized for being intelligent (in the 80’s when I was in school). But I think for girls it becomes harder during puberty, because of all the said pressures. All of a sudden being pretty becomes a status symbol, because men are visual creatures and if you are pretty you get attention, you get power as well, and your self-esteem goes through the roof. There is a very interesting documentary that you should watch to get better insight: which not only addresses these issues, but also the images that as a woman condition you, especially through the different media, where sadly it’s still men that write most women’s roles http://www.missrepresentation.org/

Shari August 26, 2013 at 4:38 pm

Perhaps I experienced and atypical childhood, as well, because I never remember being oppressed or discouraged to achieve in any way. I think that this experience is likely becoming less the norm.

Susan August 26, 2013 at 8:00 pm

I was born in 1965. I absolutely remember asking and debating whether it was ok to let boys win. This is an issue in the book Bridge to Terabithia. When I read it to my son in the early 2000’s he didn’t understand the issue. I took that to be a good sign, but maybe boys in the 70’s and 80’s were unaware of it too! For more insight about what happens to girls in adolescencce you should check out Mary Pipher’s classic Raising Ophelia. And I love your blog. Keep up the great inquiries.

Kruidig Meisje August 28, 2013 at 9:01 am

I didn’t feel much pressure to dumb down. But then, I didn’t have to many friends. Now I feel very much at home in a geek circle…..
That said, I have an interesting anecdote. When I applied for a job, an IQ test was required as part of the procedure. When I was informed of the results by the (female) psychologist, she just said: “you have a very high visual IQ, which is quite astounding for a woman”. I was pretty perplexed, as the job was gender neutral (a computer doesn’t really care whether a man or woman touches the keyboard programming it) and no gender specific questions had arisen during the procedure before. If even psychologists have gender specific expectations on IQ….

Avygator August 30, 2013 at 8:28 am

I think as an adult women occasionally i have to dumb my self down to make people comfortable around me (maybe im hanging out with the wrong people). I was born and raised in India and came to the US to be an aeronautical engineer. I was generally a intelligent, self aware teenager brimming high confidence levels. Then I joined the workforce (which was predominantly male) and immediately i realised that no one liked me unless i was just a little dumber. For the initial half of my career I was in a competition with other young women for appearing to be more fun (& dumber). Thankfully I have gained the self confidence that comes with being in your thirties. I have moved on from what i feel was societal pressure to be accepted and make freinds and not appear intimidating and serious. No one likes a smart girl is the general message sent to women from my limited experience.

Toni Brown August 30, 2013 at 1:43 pm

It still happens, especially in the work place. Maybe it’s the industry I’ve always worked in (construction), but the expectation for me to be decorative and dumb (visibly) but (behind the scenes, silently) be wholly effective at the same time is so consistent that I’ve given it my own name. I call it the ‘Shrink to Fit’ syndrome.

Ashley P September 4, 2013 at 1:51 pm

I think that a lot of women are afraid that they will be made fun of for being smart. They don’t want men to say they are to smart, which doesn’t make sense to me. If your smart, then flaunt it.

Andrea September 4, 2013 at 3:29 pm

I think the detail that’s missing is the fact that it’s a tv show. The type of girl that would 1.) Show interest in and 2.) be cast in a tv game show is going to be skewed towards a more attention seeking and conventionally attractive young woman. So the nerds ( meant as a compliment -I’m one) The goths, and the other outcasts that actually know the answers are most likely not watching or participating. There are better things to do.

Diana September 6, 2013 at 1:31 pm

I DEFINITELY felt pressure to not appear smart. I have an IQ somewhere between 145 and 160. I was born in 1957 and my childhood was full of smaller siblings, and a very strict, very freaked out, uber-Catholic housewife mother. The only thing that was important was that I be a “good” girl. For whatever reasons, I had very low self esteem. I would do ANYTHING to avoid the pain of not fitting in, which was futile. I never seemed to find friends and the joy of knowing the right answer was not worth the pain of ridicule for “acting smart”. I spent my time alone and lonely and feeling completely flawed. To this day I wonder if less intelligent people are happier. I know I would have done more with my life and my intellect if I’d had more cultural support to be creatively intelligent. I would have contributed more to the world. Thankfully, I’m not dead yet.

Sarah September 11, 2013 at 8:18 pm

I managed to defy that pressure throughout school, graduating near the top of my class and raising my hand more than most folks, but I also wasn’t dating, thought of myself as fairly asexual, and didn’t worry too much about the differences between boys and girls. Once I started being interested in men though, somewhere during college, some conditioning showed up that I never even realized I had and I suddenly became entirely incapable of voicing a thought or opinion… something I struggle with to this day (and am currently working on a post about.) So yes, there is pressure and it’s related, I think, to the pressure to appear desirable to men and the concept that a woman’s highest purpose in life is marriage… a concept which I always thought was outmoded until I realized how frequently it’s fed to us on a daily basis through the media. Thanks for raising this issue – I’m excited to go listen to the podcast.

Kitty September 13, 2013 at 3:18 am

I did not feel the pressure to dumb down, but I did feel the pressure to give priority to looks over smarts, which is different but yields the same results.

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Bea September 15, 2013 at 7:25 am

I can somehow understand and corroborate what you are saying. I’m a 17-year-old portuguese girl and right now I’m pretty comfortable with my body and appearance, have high grades at school and get along well with lots of different people (even though I mostly prefer to hang out with geeks and weirdos :).
Well, but that wasn’t always quite so and certainly I cannot say there weren’t moments I felt being cast outside just because I was smart and enjoyed reading, watching documentaries, having conversations on politics, philosophy, etc. In the classes I have been through, many of my colleagues who didn’t know me so well would build this limited picture of me as either a always-studying-boring-weird-girl or an arrogant privileged smart-ass.
So, for a lot of years even though I didn’t diminished my grades, I felt so shy and anti-social and tried quite hard to be “normal”.
Actually, I felt this social pressure and jealously mostly from girls – some of them my friends and I know they didn’t do on purpose, but they would get almost mad because I managed to be a rather good student and still have a normal social life. The “popular kids” were also the most judgemental and I actually once noticed this beautiful smart but uninterested/-ing girl whispering to other while I was doing an oral presentation “she’s intelligent, charismatic and even pretty!” with the most contemptible tone I have ever heard.
Guys on the other hand tend to be cooler and more tolerant. On tops, I feel only intellectual competition on some subject and that’s rather funny and enriching for both.
To sum up, I believe there is still a greater pressure put on girls to be pretty, look good, act cool, and this leads to lots of insecurities and self-consciousness that makes us be judgemental towards other girls. I think things are getting better though and, well, we all grow up. High school is just a phase.

Bea September 15, 2013 at 7:25 am

I can somehow understand and corroborate what you are saying. I’m a 17-year-old portuguese girl and right now I’m pretty comfortable with my body and appearance, have high grades at school and get along well with lots of different people (even though I mostly prefer to hang out with geeks and weirdos :).
Well, but that wasn’t always quite so and certainly I cannot say there weren’t moments I felt being cast outside just because I was smart and enjoyed reading, watching documentaries, having conversations on politics, philosophy, etc. In the classes I have been through, many of my colleagues who didn’t know me so well would build this limited picture of me as either a always-studying-boring-weird-girl or an arrogant privileged smart-ass.
So, for a lot of years even though I didn’t diminished my grades, I felt so shy and anti-social and tried quite hard to be “normal”.
Actually, I felt this social pressure and jealously mostly from girls – some of them my friends and I know they didn’t do on purpose, but they would get almost mad because I managed to be a rather good student and still have a normal social life. The “popular kids” were also the most judgemental and I actually once noticed this beautiful smart but uninterested/-ing girl whispering to other while I was doing an oral presentation “she’s intelligent, charismatic and even pretty!” with the most contemptible tone I have ever heard.
Guys on the other hand tend to be cooler and more tolerant. On tops, I feel only intellectual competition on some subject and that’s rather funny and enriching for both.
To sum up, I believe there is still a greater pressure put on girls to be pretty, look good, act cool, and this leads to lots of insecurities and self-consciousness that makes us be judgemental towards other girls. I think things are getting better though and, well, we all grow up. High school is just a phase.

Panda September 25, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Reading the anecdotes on this site, I guess I must’ve just been lucky (or was I?). My high school experience was characterised by growing up with equally studious and intelligent people, and for the most part we reveled in the competition to do well. In my year level at least, females clearly dominated the academic playing field. I feel like the males were the ones who suffered from the ‘too cool to be smart’ syndrome, most of them didn’t try as hard as they could have because it was ‘uncool’ to do so amongst their peers. On the flip side, no one ever looked down on my friends or I, nor did they seem intimidated, they just accepted that we were intelligent and that wasn’t a threat to them. In fact I feel like it was the opposite for me, like I HAD to do well while I was in the spotlight. I couldn’t let down my peers and teachers and family, because everyone knew I was doing well so I had to ensure that I always was.

I think that’s why when I got into university I started to slack off a lot, because suddenly I was out of the spotlight; no one knew how well I was doing or even cared how well I was doing. It was such a liberating experience. The worst part about people knowing you’re intelligent and successful is that everyone expects you to always be that. When you say a test was hard, they laugh at you and say, “You’re just saying that! You’re still going to do well!”, which is so embarrassing when you find out you didn’t do well. It’s bad enough feeling disappointment over a failure on your own, but that disappoint is so much more acute when everyone around you is surprised or pitying you because they had no doubt you would succeed. I think that’s why when I started university, I made sure to keep myself as anonymous as possible. It’s hard to keep up that level of anonymity in high school, but in university you can just blend into the background. To me, hiding my intelligence was never about dumbing myself down or making myself look ‘cooler’ or more comfortable to be around, it was more to keep everyone’s expectations of me at an average level. I guess I’m just lazy and prefer not to be the centre of attention!

LCTP October 5, 2013 at 8:46 am

I am sad to hear about how girls are socialized to “dumb down” for others. Speaking from my own experience, I think that this might vary by culture. I grew up in Asian culture and was never told to dumb myself down for anyone. Quite the opposite actually. I was always told to do very well in school and was punished if I did not make an A. Whenever a classmate or friend did better than me in school, I was told, “See, you should be like him/her. Work harder and make good grades.” Coming from Asian culture, I think girls have more freedom (or even pressure) to look smarter or to do better. It was not unusual for Asian girls to be interested in makeup and clothes and boys but also be interested in reading and math and science. So I suppose it was an all-around win for us. My observations are that mainstream white American culture is a bit different because there is more pressure for women to look good and be marriage material rather than be the next Nobel laureate. Take that as you will.

Spacebeam October 5, 2013 at 7:22 pm

I have not felt this pressure. I have a friend who had a sex change about 5 years ago–male to female and she was in her early 60s when she had it done. She is a scientist–very good at what she does. She has been commenting about how different her brain is under the influence of estrogen. She says that her brain works differently now and she has a hard time performing the same way she used to at her job. Hmmm. I’m not sure if that is common, but it is interesting and I think aligned with many ideas related to how much impact hormones have on every single aspect of…..everything! Just something to ponder.

Charlotte October 7, 2013 at 4:35 pm

I think it’s also the fear of getting an answer wrong and being embarrassed that affects girls more so than boys. It probably also stems from some male attitudes of not wanting to date a woman who is smarter than them or seeing them as boring as opposed to the giggling girls who act dumb and give the impression they need a man to take care of them.

Nina November 5, 2013 at 10:43 am

Chimamanda Adichie’s “We should all be feminists” TED talk quite accurately portrays many girls’ experiences-I come from a very different ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic background than her and yet our stories are alarmingly similar. Which is sad because it only proves that this problem is global.
The last conversation I had with my parents (over 2 years ago, just as I started my engineering degree) my dad yelled at me saying that it’s not a profession for women and that he is against me pursuing it; my mom (and I know for a fact she never read anything by Nietzsche) said “every woman’s purpose is to give birth” and that I should leave school and start a family. My parents disowned me because I do not obey them and I do what I want with my life.
On the other hand, if I was a boy, they’d disown me if I didn’t pursue a degree or wanted to be a stay at home dad- men don’t have it rainbows and unicorns either, they’re just pressured in different ways (in her talk Chimamanda has some great points on this subject as well).

Felisia November 14, 2013 at 6:12 pm

I was a strait-A student, and I don’t remember being pressured to “dumb it down,” but I always got the impression that dumb is sexy. I’m not sure if this is because stupid = easier to manipulate and less intimidating, but boys seemed to go for less intelligent girls. If intelligence were sexy, it would be part of the alpha-female competition, and there would be no Betty Boop idolization. I think it is starting to trend in another direction because modern guys are expressing an interest in nerdy girls that play video games or like Sci-fi or whatever. Historically, all that mattered was tits, ass, and a “cute” persona, so that is all girls worked on developing.

Kori December 11, 2013 at 1:29 am

I guess that is the society we live in, we are taught to find worth in being cool or beautiful, I am 20 now and I still feel that pressure.
One thing nobody in my High School could stand was overzealousness.
The lamest of the lame were the poor unfortunate souls who tried too hard (like me lol).
If you were already cool you could raise your hand or bludge or do whatever you like.
If you wanted to try to be cool then you should probably just bludge and start smoking.
But that was pretty transparent too.
High social status was almost automatically given to attractive, indifferent, stylish girls.
I guess aloof indifference is the path of least resistance for girls

Serena January 5, 2014 at 1:25 am

I’ve never felt pressured to act dumb around anyone, in fact I may go pretty overboard in the other direction when I go on rants disregarding whether other people understand what I’m saying or not. However, there was a time when I had a bit of a reputation for acting that way, but it was all a game to me; I never felt pressured. I’m not sure why I did it, but it was mostly with guys. I don’t think it was as much about making them feel more masculine and in control as it was about me wanting to feel taken care of; almost like a child. There’s a lot of unconscious patterns that play out in the teenage years and girls often seek out interactions that remind them of their father. In the separation that comes between the child and the parents, they have to fulfill those needs elsewhere. There’s a certain freedom in not having to hold your own as an independent person and taking the lead from someone else, though it’s not a healthy one.

Beth January 22, 2014 at 4:26 pm

I’m really late here, but that’s what happens when you read the archives I guess!

Seeing as it was televised, I’m guessing that the women were made up and were very conscious of their appearances, and so I’m wondering if this had an effect of dumbing them down:

(I’ve read a more scientific version of the article in a book but I can’t for the life of me remember where…)

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Jlynn March 14, 2014 at 1:29 pm

I don’t believe its entirely about ‘dumbing’ it down with teenage girls but more about self conscious behaviour. It is worse to answer a question and be wrong, then answer it at all. If you are wrong, then you might appear to be stupid and at that age appearance is everything. It might be safer to say nothing at all than risk being judged or made fun of by peers.

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