In my first job as a journalist, my editor told me that I couldn’t write. Though he was a caricature of a villain, who yelled at me about the Holocaust and said he “didn’t believe in” transgender people, I couldn’t dismiss his critique. I still can’t. He was a terrible bully, yes, but there’s a voice in my own head—in every writer’s head—that agrees with him. There’s no way to definitively prove him wrong.
I remembered this experience after reading Salma Hayek’s account of working with serial sexual predator Harvey Weinstein. Before Hayek met Weinstein, she was told the Hollywood producer had a “remarkable intellect.” And throughout their abusive encounters, she remained desperate for his intellectual approval. “I wanted him to see me as an artist,” she wrote.
Most women, even those who’ve never been harassed or abused, will recognize this sentiment. Misogyny means that women’s talent is chronically underrated by both men and other women. Yet creative work will always have flaws, and no one is beyond criticism. And so when a woman’s work is insulted, it’s impossible know with confidence whether the critique is sexist, or simply honest.
Even without direct put-downs, women who work in sexist environments often find their confidence is subtly chipped away. At one job, I watched as certain young men were repeatedly labeled “very good,” until their talent became accepted wisdom. They were, usually, very good. Not more so, however, than their female peers, who weren’t given such recognition.
Occasionally, it’s obvious that a woman is being intellectually belittled because of her gender. When I was in college, the prestigious male-dominated literary magazine and comedy club became something of a joke when several women they’d rejected from their boards won major literary awards and became hugely successful comedians. Hayek writes that Weinstein only agreed to show her film, Frida, in cinemas after it received a score of 85 at an audience test. (Fewer than 10% of movies get higher than 80.) With that, she had definitive evidence that her film was worth watching.
But because it’s difficult to objectively evaluate talent, most women don’t know for certain if gender determines when they’re being disparaged. It’s plausible Hillary Clinton had so little popular support because of her long political career, or her emails, or because she’s unlikeable. I’m confident that, were she a man, she would be president. But I can’t prove it.
Since I’ve moved on from that terrible first editor, I’ve had plenty of praise and success as a journalist. I don’t have imposter syndrome; I know I’m good at my job. At the same time, I’m fully aware of my shortcomings. When I meet someone who seems a little snide about my writing or my knowledge, I’m never entirely sure whether they’re rightly dismissive because I should be better, or if they’re tainted by sexism.
Women are not the only ones who wrestle with self-doubt. Several male friends and colleagues told me they too occasionally feel dismissed, and worry about the quality of their work. But men do seem slightly more confident that, if they put in the work and improve, they will get the recognition they deserve. “I kind of believe that doing good work gets rewarded in the marketplace of ideas and if that’s not happening then it’s my fault,” said one friend.
Plenty of women, however, never get the recognition they deserve. Art galleries, libraries, and cinemas are overwhelmingly filled with the great creative works of men. Certainly the canon celebrates the best that white men have to offer. But who are the women and people of color who’ve been left out? Sure, I think Martin Amis’s early work would be classified as “chick lit” if he were a woman, while Helen Fielding would be widely heralded for her wry observational humor were she a man. But that assessment, too, is entirely subjective.
Prejudice, of course, does not only exist along gendered lines. My colleague Akshat Rathi, who went from being a member of the racial majority in India to a minority in the UK, says he was immediately aware of the myriad subtle ways in which his words and work were received differently. Rathi, who has a PhD in chemistry from Oxford University, says his email signature is “Dr. Akshat Rathi,” because he’s treated with more respect when he highlights his education. (Similarly, I have a tendency to emphasize my English accent when other people talk down to me; in the US, English people are positively stereotyped as intelligent, and this can counteract negative dismissals of women.) Rathi says he expects to face prejudice; as he can’t prevent it, he works even harder to cover all bases in his work. This mindset drives many women and people of color to work far harder to compensate for others’ prejudice—though, ultimately, hard work alone is never protection against the discrimination and luck that affects who makes it to the top.
Just as sexism taints rejection of women’s creative talents, it can also influence praise. Certain men will fawn over women���s work not because they value their ideas, but because they’re interested in them sexually. Several women who’ve accused Dustin Hoffman of assault said that he first praised their work. “You’re a real actress, aren’t you?,” Hoffman allegedly told a 22-year-old anonymous woman before he assaulted her. Another woman, Melissa Kester, said she later felt stupid for believing that Hoffman could’ve been interested in her ideas. “I told him about some projects I was interested in, and he seemed really interested. I’m embarrassed, thinking back, because why would he be interested?” she told Variety. Women have learned to watch for signs of lascivious intent just as we carefully monitor criticism for signs of sexist bullying—even when neither factor is present.
I don’t know how to solve this problem. There’s no answer to perpetual question of whether someone dislikes my work because I’m a woman, or because it’s bad. And if I did know the answer, I’m not sure which would be worse.
All we can do, I suppose, is question our subjective assumptions. If you only read books by men, hire male employees, or listen to male composers, then recognize that you’re only accessing half the talent in the world. At the same time, there’s no need to be uncritical of female talent—after all, criticism, when it’s constructive, allows us to address the problems that pepper our work. Rathi says overcoming pervasive prejudice is beyond his control. Instead, he focuses on what he can control by actively seeking out feedback: If he knows what isn’t working, then he’s aware of how to improve. We should feel free to critique others’ work, but we should do so kindly. Intellectual bullying is never, truly, intellectually honest.