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Why Women Don't Like the Word "Mastery"

An interview with Beverly Slade
by Amy Edelstein


Our research for this issue of WIE revealed some surprising differences between the way men and women respond to the concept of self-mastery. In an attempt to understand what some of the reasons for these differences might be, we spoke with Dr. Beverly Slade, an insightful researcher whose work has focused on how women relate to excellence. In Slade's studies with women in specific age groups, she has discovered telling patterns in their responses to the subject of mastery and has developed some fascinating hypotheses about the cultural and personal reasons for this intriguing disparity between the genders. Slade earned her doctorate in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University and is currently working on a book entitled Competence: Seeing and Believing.
WIE: Although there are many extraordinary women who have pushed through limits in remarkable ways, we had a surprisingly difficult time finding women who would speak about the qualities of self-mastery and about their own extraordinary accomplishments with the same kind of strength, conviction and spirit that men of equal achievement do. Why do you think it is that even very accomplished women seem to be unwilling to express an unqualified confidence in their own ability? Why do women seem to dislike the very idea of self-mastery?

Beverly Slade:
It's interesting that you've come across many roadblocks with women when using the word "mastery," but it doesn't totally surprise me. I don't use the word "mastery" in my work. I use the word "competence," which shares a similar root with "competition"—and people have their own issues with that word, too—but competence is, in general, less threatening for women to speak about. I've found the word "mastery" a little too loaded for women. It implies domination, being at the top of the pyramid. "Mastery" comes from the word "master," which is a state or condition of being a controller or a ruler, and that generally doesn't speak to women's experience.

But I don't think this is the main reason that women don't like to describe their abilities in terms of mastery. I think what's really happening is that in the expression of competence or excellence there are many social consequences that arise for women that don't arise for men. Women are socialized to believe that "tooting their own horn" is dangerous, so they learn to keep their competencies to themselves. They also may find that other people are threatened by their expression of their ability and will want to avoid them, will see them as being "full of themselves," or will even perceive that when they speak about their positive achievements they are lying, fabricating something that is beyond who they are and what they can do. Strong women may also fear that others will not come to their assistance when they actually need help. You see, women experience these consequences, and this affects and limits the way they will speak about their own abilities. As one chemistry professor said to me, "The consequences are real; they're not just in the minds of women."

If you look at this on a basic level, humans are pretty vulnerable creatures and we survive through our relationships. If women feel that their relationships and their connections to others are threatened by their competence, they're certainly not going to put those abilities out in a very strong way for fear that they may be isolated or excommunicated from the very relationships that they need to survive. It may not be as biological as it once was—we have houses, we're not living out in the wild—but on a psychological level, and sometimes on a physical level as well, survival can be based on keeping those relationships intact.

Why is it that even very strong, successful women are so adamant in their refusal to speak about the qualities of self-mastery in their own experience?

At higher levels of achievement, it's even more threatening and more frightening for women to speak directly about the level of ability that they have reached. As these women become more visible in the public realm because of their achievements, their relational concerns may become even greater. Given women's position in the culture at large, they probably regularly face people who are trying to undermine them, because people are threatened by competent women. So strong women may walk with an even lighter step in describing their experiences than other women.

Do critical or negative responses come from other women as well as from men?

Yes. Studies have been done which confirm that girls' expressions of competence are often met by negative reactions from both men and women. We're taught by the culture not to see women's competence as appealing; and in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, girls learn: "No one likes a smart girl, a know-it-all, a bossy girl." I've noticed in my own research how women bristle when they hear other women speak candidly about their skills and abilities and accomplishments in a way that they wouldn't when they hear men speaking about parallel achievements in their lives.

Why is that?

We're socialized to hear women's strong voices as strident, bossy, brash or "ball-breaking." Women are taught to soften their voices, to speak in a higher register than their natural voice and to use tentative language so as not to ruffle other people's feathers. Women use words like "seems" and "like" more often, words that diminish the power of our actual accomplishments, our experiences and our perceptions of the world. And in my research, I've found that women often speak about surrender when describing a very powerful experience of their competence, and that's been confusing to me.

When women speak about "surrender," do you think they mean surrender in a spiritual context?

I wouldn't want to make a blanket statement because many women do take great strength and guidance from a higher power in their lives, but when I have stopped to probe further with women about their use of such phrases as "I just need to surrender to the knowledge inside me"—"letting go" is another popular term—they've described it as a "voice within." My hypothesis is that this is an inner voice that gives them the confidence to trust themselves and to do what they already feel or have proven that they are capable of, and the confidence to go against the internalized voice of society which says that they are not capable, which doubts and criticizes them.

Often because of this cultural voice that tells women they can't, women's experience is mitigated or diminished—they don't have as direct, welcoming and open a door to experiencing their competence as men often do. I haven't done a lot of research on men, and my hunch is that many men experience conflict as well, but they are largely welcomed to speak boldly. A literary agent once told me that if she put a call out for autobiographies, the next day she would have fifty on her desk from men and none from women!

Another key factor, which has been shown in other studies, is that women often conceive of their competence in relationship to ability, something inborn—they either have it or they don't—and men more often see their competence as related to effort. This is really important because effort is the single most powerful factor in building competence. You can have less skill, try harder and have more success. This is very telling, because in the face of an obstacle, men will make more effort whereas women often will give up; women don't persevere and go past some of the hurdles they're more than capable of moving through.

Why do you think women feel that way?

One hypothesis I have is that women are taught to look to others for information whereas men are taught to look to the task directly. Men are taught the scientific method—look at a problem, gather evidence, from that evidence build a hypothesis and then test it. Women are taught to look to others. Their experience is almost like reflected light; they don't look at the fire directly, they see it as it is reflected in the eyes or opinions or experiences of others. This gives women an inadequate set of tools to work with. And I think that because of that, women don't have the lay of the land; they're at a loss for a gauge with which to measure whether they've actually accomplished something or not. Because they're not looking at the task directly, they don't really know what the dimensions of the task are, and they don't have a realistic sense of what is required. So women don't really know if it is effort or ability, or what's at stake. They miss out on a lot that is important because they are always looking to others.

We were surprised at the degree to which many extraordinary women resist being seen as examples or role models. Some of the women we encountered in our research made some unexpected comments along these lines. For example, Susan Powter told us, "I'm not a role model . . . I'm just a housewife who figured it out"; Billie Jean King has written that she doesn't want to be labeled "heroic," she's just an ordinary individual; and Joan Benoit Samuelson, when asked about her record-breaking marathon career, usually responds by speaking about raising her children. Again and again, women who stand out because of their own achievements, and who should be proud to be role models and encourage other women to excel, don't want to do it! They just don't like the idea of being a role model and won't take credit for accomplishing something really extraordinary. Why do you think that is?

When you're describing someone saying, "I'm just a housewife who got it. I don't want to be a role model; I'm just a regular person," I also hear, "Don't focus too much on me. I find it a little bit too scary to say that I'm special and different; that really puts me on the line, and certainly people won't want to be around me if I come out and say, 'Look, I'm pretty great' or 'I'm an incredibly fast runner and I can do this.'" Even the most informed feminists often have a hard time with women who speak in those ways—if we can even find them!

Unfortunately, because of the consequences that come from speaking out, we often don't get to learn enough about what went into women's accomplishments, which could provide others with valuable information. And that's the real rub. I am a firm believer that much of our deep experience of ourselves comes through expressing those experiences to others. And when I encourage women to speak to me about their experiences of competence, I often see a noticeable shift in the quality of their self-esteem that seems to be connected to hearing themselves talk confidently about their abilities. If women never have an opportunity to speak boldly to others, then I think in some ways their actual experience is not as great. Their confidence doesn't become as fortified because they don't have deep experiences to reference as they face new challenges, and so they may not know in a true sense what they're most capable of doing.


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