By Emma Sandri
The heat was sweltering. It was June and the air conditioning didn’t extend into the seventh and eighth graders’ hallways.
My classmates clamoured to get their yearbooks signed, to have their last conversations and pick up games before school was out. I was alone in our small corner classroom, savouring my last moments of middle school.
“I’ve always considered asking you out,” my classmate Jonathan* said, interrupting my thoughts. “You’re really smart and pretty, but…”
Over our last eight years in school together, I had never gone out of my way to talk to Jonathan. In fact, I did my best to avoid his company altogether. Yet, his admission would stick with me until this day.
“You’re just too smart,” he said.
I felt his eyes on my face and I blushed.
I had always excelled in school. I was the first to throw my hand in the air, the first to shout out answers, the first to finish tests.
My intelligence had been a badge of honour and I wore it with pride. I had never once felt ashamed — until then.
That hot, icky feeling stayed with me as I started high school. It crawled under my skin every time a teacher called on me, when a test was dropped onto my desk, when I was partnered up with a boy.
I made myself dumber and smaller — I chipped away at myself to fit into the mould of perfect femininity. It’s a reality many young women face: the battle between being desirable or ambitious.
That’s the feeling Liza* carried with her throughout her first year of university.
“OK, he just wants me to shut up,” Liza said about her ex.
“Well he’s an ex for a reason,” Liza says. "He would put me down for wanting to go to school. [He said,] ‘Oh, I don’t understand why you should be putting in that much time and effort when in the end you’re just going to be caring for your husband anyways.’”
Liza has a bachelor of life sciences from the University of Toronto. Today, she’s in a fast-track program for public health at Ryerson as she prepares for medical school.
In her first year of university, she dated Steven, a sociology major she met in high school. During their relationship, Liza’s main academic interest was neuropsychology and neurobiology.
“If I was talking to his friends or him, I [couldn’t] even talk about what I [was] learning in class because they passed it off as too boring. So, I always had to keep everything to myself.”
Liza and Steven’s relationship lasted for just over a year. During that time, she says she felt pressure from him and his friends to make herself less intelligent.
So she made herself smaller.
“For him I felt like it was more of a threat.”
Consciously, Liza says she changed her behaviour to make things easier on her partner. She stopped talking about class and about the things that she had learned, hiding that part of her herself when she was with him.
Liza left Steven because she said he made her feel like she shouldn’t enjoy things that he didn’t — namely, her program.
Yet, it wasn’t just with Steven. There have been “multiple times” when Liza has had to make herself seem less intelligent for both partners and friends.
“If I’m getting super well in a course, I can’t go out and say it,” she says. “I feel like I’m spraining their ego. Like if I got an 90 and they got a 70 or something like that, they usually get really upset over it and say I’m showing off or something like that. So I just keep everything to myself.”
Research shows that Liza and I are not alone. A 2017 study published in the American Economic Review shows that single female students minimized their ambitions for the sake of their marriage prospects. The female MBA students reported less desire to travel and work longer hours when they thought their classmates could see their survey answers. They also asked for lower salaries.
They made themselves smaller.
Today, only a record 27 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons are held by women.
“What we tend to see with young women who are are high school or university age is that they will have lower levels of political ambition compared to young men,” says Ryerson University politics professor Tracey Raney.
“Young women are less likely to be encouraged into thinking about running for office — by their mom, by their dad, by their other relatives, by their peers, by their religious organizations — compared to men.”
A study conducted in 2014 showed that college women’s political ambition were significantly less than their male counterparts. The study suggests that college campuses in the United States are still “rife” with the traditional gender roles which can negatively impact the career choices women make.
“People are talking about the way [a female politician] wore her hair, or that the heels she wore didn’t match her bag, or her marital status or her status of being a mom...I think that sends a message to young women,” says Raney.
“Pop culture is a reflection of where we are at in society. So you know, it will give us a sense of the level of gender equality in a particular society,” she continued.
Raney’s own research, published in 2015, delved into the 2004-2009 revisit of Battlestar Galactica. According to the professor, an undertone of the show was that it was problematic to be a woman and in power.
“What we saw with these female characters was there was always this undertone of them being unhappy,” says Raney. “[That] you can’t be a whole and complete human being if you are a woman and assume power in society…that it is problematic to be a woman in [a] position of power.”
In my experience, society makes women smaller. It tells them that they aren’t good enough, that they have to sacrifice their position as a mother, as a wife or as a friend in order to be successful.
As women are continually told to be smaller and less threatening — whether it’s in their relationships or through a TV show — women continue to resist. They call out sexual harassment in the #MeToo movement and they make history in record elections.
It is in our resistance that I find comfort for the next girl — the next me — who is told to shrink. I hope she keeps putting up her hand first.
*Names have been changed to protect individuals’ identities