For as long as I can remember, the things that I loved have made me seem ditzy. Whether it’s the fact that I care about fashion, that my taste in TV shows only ranges from the Bachelor to Love Island or because of the voice that I use when I write. I like to describe this voice as some calculated version of Carrie Bradshaw as a Jewish mother, a voice that is conversational, lighthearted and shrewd. Although I hope to pursue a career in journalism, this voice of mine has led me on an untraditional path. While most of my peers in the field aspire to become reporters for the New York Times, I dream of getting to write about fashion, sex and feminism for a magazine or website.
This is the type of writing I think I’m good at, the type of writing that makes me feel smart. But why is it that people see this career path as less serious or respectable? While my writing and career aspirations are just one example, I have found that too often the ways that I choose to express my intelligence seem to only diminish it in the eyes of others rather than establish it.
In a creative writing workshop at Kenyon, I wrote a short story about a female protagonist who was honest, funny and pretty horny. While I was complimented on this story and given positive feedback, I was also called a “dirty girl” in front of my classmates and felt as though I was being judged on my sexuality rather than on my writing. Although this situation may be unique to me, I imagine that the struggle to be taken seriously in the classroom is one that most women can relate to. It was always that my writing was “humorous, unique and entertaining”—but never that it was “smart.”
I began to wonder: Why is it that women are more likely to be praised as “nice,” “creative” or “passionate,” rather than being called smart? How can we explain the fact that women tend to be told that they are good students because of their participation, put-togetherness or other contributions to the classroom, rather than for their ideas or intelligence? While I cannot say for sure, I would speculate that there is a key element that created this stigma: The ways women are more likely to express their intellect, and the fields that they choose to be involved in, have already been deemed as less smart, impressive or important.
It’s no secret that at Kenyon, and in the world, college majors are gendered. Men are much more likely to be in fields like math, physics or economics, while women are more likely to pursue degrees in psychology, women’s and gender studies, or English. While the classic mantra that “we need more women in STEM” is important and encourages women to break into male-dominated fields, I wish that we could also learn to praise women for the fields that they are already involved in. Women in STEM are often depicted as superheroes and placed on a pedestal, which only perpetuates the notion that male-dominated fields are more valuable or admirable.
I believe that if we keep this in mind, we can start changing the culture at Kenyon. Begin to notice when people call psychology a “soft science,” kindly correct a friend if they compare the difficulty of their major to another, and encourage yourself to call a woman in your class “smart,” not just because this article told you to, but because she probably is.
It’s important to remember that there are many different types of intelligence, and each person has their own unique set of strengths. The difficulty of a major or an activity is relative to each individual and how their brain works. So I would never wish to say that the fields women more commonly occupy are more beneficial or important in some way—but rather, we must recognize that those fields are currently viewed as inferior, as less smart, and work to give all areas of study not only equal praise, but the same kinds of praise.
It’s time we push ourselves to erase whatever one image we have of quintessential intelligence, and begin to see intelligence as simply someone’s expression of their passion and skill. Whether there is an impact in our society, on campus, or in one classroom, it’s important we rewrite the concept of what we see as “smart” to ensure that women are included in the definition.