An Uphill Climb

An Uphill Climb

Carol Smith

It’s no secret that girls and young women face more of an uphill climb than their male counterparts, particularly with speaking up and being heard.  And everyone suffers a psychological toll when they feel silenced, but especially children.  They are still learning and shaping their world.  Behaviors are internalized, and patterns are established.  That’s why it’s important to make sure that girls and young women know that they have the right to be heard.  Even if the very people in her life, intentionally or unintentionally, communicate to her that it’s not so.  After all, those same oppressive societal patterns were present when their mothers or female role models grew up.

A mother who always encouraged her daughter to be herself faced a difficult wake-up call one day.  She shared, “It’s all well and good when my daughter's grandparents remind her to wash her hands after having used the washroom, but it's a different issue when they are praising her for being quiet...they have placed a premium on behaviors that are submissive: being quiet, being seen but not heard and being a good listener.....when those behaviors are overemphasized to the exclusion of others, it tells her that, to be a ‘good girl,’ she needs to be quiet” (“Good Girls Are Quiet: How Society Tells Our Daughters To Self-Silence,” Zhang, 2018).

Undoubtedly, the grandparents love their granddaughter, yet they still pass on their cultural or age-related, deeply programmed, and internal biases.  When I was growing up, I was praised by everyone in my family for being such a good, quiet girl.  Little did we all know, I was an undiagnosed autistic who, as a teenager, eventually suffered selective mutism. 

Around the time I was in middle school, I began living in the shadow world of the good, quiet girl, but now the societal expectations had shifted on me, and I was starting to feel criticized for being quiet by both peers and teachers.  Though Asperger’s was not well known back then (and the diagnosis has since collapsed into just being part of the autism spectrum), quiet girls' cultural norms allowed my condition to remain undiagnosed for decades. Like most conditions, had I been properly diagnosed at a young age, I could have received the help I needed and been spared years of unnecessary emotional pain.  But the annual checkups by school psychologists and observations by pediatricians and teachers never concluded with a diagnosis.

Unfortunately, most educators perpetuate the ideal of quiet girls. One teacher and researcher notes, “research over several decades have indicated that teachers provide an uneven distribution of time to male students — allowing more interruptions or talking out of turn from the...Girls are called on less frequently and therefore volunteer or raise their hands less often. Teachers spend nearly two-thirds more time interacting with boys than with girls, and they allow boys to interrupt girls, rather than vice versa...For African American girls and other girls of color, the silencing is more direct.  African American girls are six times more likely to be punished in school than their white counterparts, particularly for offenses deemed ‘disobedient’ or ‘defiant’” (“Teacher of the Year: How Schools Silence Girls — and How I Played a Part,” Lamb-Sinclair, 2018).

Most of the time, my school report cards were still filled with joyous praise from my teachers for being quiet.  However, a few teachers were starting to express their concern that I rarely participated.  And one class, in particular, was the hardest for me: gym.  I was suffering from undiagnosed hypotonia and hyper-mobility, both conditions that can be found fairly often in those on the spectrum.  But since no one knew I was on the spectrum, no one was looking for why I was physically struggling.  The hypotonia made me weaker than my peers.  The hypermobility caused me to overextend my muscles, which hurt.  Aside from these physical limitations, gym class was usually where I had some company from other hesitant girls...many female classmates didn't feel comfortable running around or getting involved in horseplay the same way the boys were allowed and encouraged to do.

But I can remember a few rare opportunities where some volatile projectile was coming at me in just the right way that I actually made contact in the right direction and didn’t hurt myself.  These few times were met with negativity from some of my peers and even the gym teachers.  I clearly remember a fifth-grade hybrid football/soccer game when I scored a goal, which was very, very rare for me.  So the gym teacher, who had been playing along with us, straightened himself up and, with a tone of regret, stated, “Well, I guess that’s it then, that goal ends the game.” 

Most of my peers, even the ones on my own team, protested, “Nooooo!”  The gym teacher thought about it.  One of the boys yelled, “Yeah, but Carol scored it!” The teacher said, “It was by Carol? You’re right!  It’s a do-over!” And so my point didn’t count, and the game resumed.  My single moment of success was replaced very quickly by shame.  I’d somehow done something wrong, but what?  I had no idea what I was supposed to do.  I stayed on the field, trying to participate until I realized I was something akin to a ghost.  Almost no one would make eye contact or speak to me, so I eventually walked off to the sidelines and waited for it to be over.

Real-life is messy.  I know my otherness as a person with undiagnosed Asperger’s was always an annoyance to many classmates and teachers. And my gym inability aggravated the competitive schoolmates I had.  But I still had these issues connected to my gender.  I was supposed to be quiet because loud girls were frowned upon, but not too quiet because then that annoyed other people. I was supposed to be better than I was at sports, but never, even momentarily, as good as the boys on the field.  Literally and metaphorically, hanging out on the sidelines seemed to represent a lot of my childhood and adolescence.  

I hope one day this vicious cycle can come to an end.  Girls and young women are being taught the wrong things.  They are expected to fulfill impossible standards that are both unfair and contradictory.  I wish I could go back in time, walk back onto that field, and somehow convey that, yes, I know exactly what I’m doing, and score a point for the other team.