Among the toxic effects of workplace sexism, certain topics receive a lot of press: unequal pay, sexual harassment, inadequate maternity leave, a shortage of women in leadership roles. Less discussed is the psychological impact of such biases—specifically, how repeated, sexist microaggressions (sometimes compounded by outright discrimination) can chip away at women’s self-confidence.
The longer this cycle persists—and usually, it persists—the more our self-confidence deteriorates, and the more we begin to paralyze ourselves from professional opportunities and success. We begin to experience increased “imposter syndrome,” the conviction that any progress we do make is a fluke and that we’re truly not qualified to work among our more illustrious (read: white, male) peers.
It’s hard to articulate why, as an accomplished woman, your self-confidence can feel like Jell-O. Or why, as an accomplished woman, you can’t just re-read your resume, pat yourself on the back, and get back to work. The difficulty is rooted in internalized shame and anxiety, and it ought to be discussed more—which was emergency-room doctor Esther Choo’s precise mission when she took to Twitter this week.
Choo is an associate professor at Oregon Health & Science University and a co-founder of Equity Quotient, which provides workplace-equity analytics to the healthcare industry. She frequently tweets about sexism and discrimination in the medical field.
In her “Is It Gender Bias, Or Do I Just Suck?” Twitter thread, which so far has racked up nearly 500 retweets and 1,500 likes, Choo applies her title question to a series of confounding experiences, like being asked to wait out a promotion so that a male colleague can advance first, or being talked over, or getting stuck with housekeeping-type duties at the office while men get tapped for leadership roles or appointed to influential committees.
Each scenario depicted in the thread comes with an illustration by Maurice Sendak from the 1958 children’s book What Do You Say, Dear? and a simple answer from Choo: “It’s gender bias.”
As the thread gained momentum, Choo publicly clarified that the experiences referenced in her tweets aren’t all personal, but rather a summary of women’s experiences in academia at large.
“I often hear from women physicians that they are doubting their own capability, and when you get down to the root of these feelings, it’s that they have had all these verbal and non-verbal signals that they don’t belong,” she told Quartz At Work, via Twitter message. “Many people interpret this as ‘I don’t DESERVE to belong.’ But studies on gender bias support that an equally qualified woman will get rated lower on criteria used to determine hireability and promotion.”
Choo, an Asian-American woman, says that race, ethnicity, gender orientation, and gender identity all compound these experiences of self-doubt.
“Women need to be aware of the very serious possibility that they are awesome, and actually it is bias that has led to the blunting of opportunity,” she says, noting that she chose Sendak’s illustrations from What Do You Say Dear? because it’s a book filled with ridiculous situations, for which the answer is always simple good manners.
“Women will describe these workplace situations where there is a 99% chance that their circumstance, or someone’s behavior, has to do with bias and discrimination at play. And maybe a 1% chance that it has to do with underperformance,” Choo told us. “And they will latch on to that ONE thing. So I wanted to draw out situations like that, when, to an outside eye, it is so patently obvious that there is bias at play. I wanted to give women permission and agency to say, ‘Wait, maybe it’s not me!'”