A Presumption of Incompetence

Ever walk into a firing squad of questions meant to disabuse you of the notion you’re worthy of where you are standing? Been on the receiving end of an eye roll, shade, wink, or head pat telling you it’s cute you want to sit at the grown ups’ table?

I am not the first, nor the best, person to write about this. Check out Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia.

But I’ve been hearing about it a lot in my discussions with female founders.

The sheer exhaustion women of color feel every time someone is surprised by their success. The wasted energy women expend just to arrive at the same starting place in a conversation as a similarly situated male. The indignity of being made to answer questions said male was not asked, and never would be.

It appears the presumption of incompetence is pervasive across industries and across stages of organizational life cycle. From pitching your idea to planning your exit, the male dominated business world is certain you don’t really know what you’re doing.

Here are a few ways you say you’ve responded:

I just bit my tongue and told them what they wanted to hear.

I took a giant swig of bourbon.

I left the room and burst into tears.

I got in the elevator and burst into tears.

I waited until I got home, then burst into tears.

I told them to fuck off. I didn’t get [the deal].

I mean, these are all perfectly human responses. But lord do they take a toll. What if we did these three things instead, whenever possible?

Presume competence in each other. While women are most often the ones presumed incompetent, men aren’t the only ones doing the presuming. Our own internal bias is often at play, triggering responses we need to check. So, let’s check that, every time.

Shut it down when we see it, especially when we’re in a position of power. When another woman enters our professional space and we recognize the all too familiar doubt about her abilities, speak up. “Obviously Ana is an expert on this matter, so how about we take the condescension down a notch and let her present her findings.”

Name it when we feel it, when we can afford to walk away. We can’t always, of course, but when we can, there’s great power in naming it right there on the spot. “The nature and tone of your questions seem to be driving at a presumed incompetence, and I’d like to understand where that’s coming from. If you have reason to doubt me, let’s pause here address it.”

What strategies have you deployed? What super powers have helped you hurtle over this particular [time wasting, soul sucking, ridiculous, I can’t believe it is 2017 and we have to talk about this] barrier?

I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. OMG I’m sorry.

To err is human. To err twice, in the same legally executed document, must therefore be super human.

Allow me then to don my cape for a little foray into M&As – Mistakes and Apologies.

Everybody makes mistakes. Typos. Mispronounced names. Prematurely sent emails. That we are susceptible to them doesn’t say much about us. How we respond, on the other hand, speaks volumes.

In my experience as a female, which is limited admittedly to 46 years and 318 days, mistakes made in a professional setting can feel enormous. Paralyzing. The dread that accompanies a business blunder can pale in proportion to the mistake itself. Why? Because I’m waiting to be found out as a fraud.

There are exceptions to every rule. Not every woman experiences this, and not everyone who experiences this is a woman. But I’m comfortable asserting this is a phenomena with which many women in business are familiar.

We mess up. We’re mortified. We lead with apology and follow with explanation. Only then do we get around to fixing it. And still we sometimes trip into a spiral of shame and self-doubt. We obsess.

I must be the only idiot to have made such a mistake.

Now they’ll think I’m sloppy. Careless. Dumb.

Oh my god, they will know I’m actually dumb. How on earth have I skated so far for so long?

What if it’s true, that I’m only here because I’m a woman? Am I even qualified?

I’d say we do it to ourselves, except that, of course, the seed of doubt was planted by someone else. We simply watered it and nourished it and protected it fiercely so it could flourish.

Let’s not do that anymore. To ourselves or each other.

I want off this particular crazy train.

New plan:

Assess it. Did anyone die? Is someone’s life, liberty, or property in imminent danger? If the answer to any of these is yes, ring all the alarms. Otherwise, take a breath and move on.

Own it. Do not cover. Tell whomever needs to know. Apologize for the inconvenience or harm, but spare others the groveling.

Fix it. Without delay.

Learn from it. Retrace my steps without judgment. Can I spot what I did wrong? Or missed? If I can see a way to do it differently next time – I’ll savor that experience. I happen to know it’s richer than business school.

Move on.

And with that, I’m moving on from yesterday’s super human double error and hanging up my cape.

How do you handle mistakes?