Years ago, probably around when I started my master’s degree, I had a chat with a friend about grad school, and she was telling me about how she’d made the decision not to continue on for her PhD. She had a lot of good reasons that just made a lot of sense for her life and her family and her goals, but she mentioned that although she was sure it was the right choice for her, sometimes she felt like she was letting down her entire gender because so few women continue on to do a PhD.
I’m reminded of this because that’s a theme that’s come up in a few comments on my recent post about impostor syndrome.
I’m torn because there’s still time, I could go back to studying computer science. I do think female representation in STEM is Important and I hate myself for taking the “easy” option and leaving a hostile environment (rather than continuing to try to fix it)
I felt really bad for dropping these courses, because it felt like I was letting down my entire gender, and by dropping the course, the male students’ stereotypes about women would be confirmed.
I wish I could say I’m immune to this, but when you’re one in a small minority (be it due to gender, race, sexual orientation, disability/ability, etc.) it’s hard to deny that it’s a factor. Guilt about not being able to do everything strikes everyone. Parents, teachers, pastors… probably even politicians. But I think it’s worse for those of us who are minorities in some way. You might be the only person “like you” your colleagues will ever see. You want to be a paragon of people like you. You want them all to come away with you as a shining counterexample the next time they hear someone say “$minority can’t do $foo.” It’s not just that you need them to be impressed by you, but that you’re representing your entire minority. There’s a world of difference between competing on a sports team and representing your country in the olympics. You want to do your best not only for you, but for everyone like you.
And that’s just the pressure you’re putting on yourself. Then there’s the requests for you to represent $people-like-you. “We need women for our co-ed sports team” or “we need you to advise the board on how we can better meet the needs of disabled folk” or “I need some dating advice and you’re the only woman I know…” or “we need you to talk about your experiences as an immigrant.” And you’re suited to the job, and maybe you want to help even, but you’ve got 30 of these requests and you barely have enough time to do your own job let alone all these other things.
Saying no is extra hard when you’re trying to be that paragon super-$minority and improve the world for $minorities worldwide. What if being on that committee resulted in them hiring more $people-like-you? What if your conference talk changed someone’s opinion of $people-like-you? What if you inspired more $people-like-you to do what you love? Are you cutting off these possibilities by saying no?
And then there’s the spotlight. You are one of few $people-like-you, so people notice what you do or don’t do. People can be more resentful when you say no because they don’t know who else to turn to, and they can’t understand why you might choose to turn down such a great opportunity because they haven’t got 10 of those on their desks for that day alone. You try to gripe about it to people, and they’re utterly unsympathetic, “Oh, my life is so hard, everyone pays attention to me. wah wah.”
So you feel guilty. For yourself, for other people. You feel like changing the world rests in your hands, and you let the world down because you had to say no. You had to quit. You had to hide. You were capable of doing it — that was not in question — but you didn’t want to and you’re worried people will think that was a sign of weakness. You chose not to. And you’re feeling guilty.
I wish I had some magical advice to deal with the paragon guilt, but sadly I don’t. But I have a few non-magical things I’ve found help me:
- Practice saying no, and learn to say “Let me check my schedule and get back to you on that…” so you have time to think and make the best choice you can in a sometimes very hard situtation.
- Seek out more $people-like-you. Maybe they’d be happy to do some of the things you can’t (e.g. there are women who’d be happy to speak who just don’t get asked as often). Maybe you just need someone who can empathise with your problems. Maybe they’ll know a better way to help.
- Seek out allies who aren’t as much like you. They can help with some of those requests too, and it can’t hurt for them to understand the problems you face.
- Remember sometimes the demands on $people-like-you are just going to exceed the resources because there are few of you. That’s not your fault.
- Try not to let guilt stop you from making choices that make sense for you. You’re probably going to want to make some sacrifices for $people-like-you, but you can’t help anyone if you’re burned out, so try to find a balance.
- Remind yourself of all the awesome stuff you have been able to do. Save thank you letters. Contemplate indirect impacts you might have had. Think about things you did well that weren’t related to being a minority at all, but are awesomeness that people might now associate with your minority.
So… what makes you feel like you’re letting down your entire gender/race/sexual-orientation, etc? What are your coping strategies? I think this sort of guilt is felt by lots of people, just magnified by being a minority, so feel free to provide links to advice and coping strategies that are more general.