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?