When was the last time you accepted a compliment (about your accomplishments, not your earrings) simply by saying, undefensively, “Thank you”? And, smiling a bit, left it at that. No self-deprecating coda. Admit it—all too frequently we’re willing to undermine the work we do, or give the lie to the effort we’ve put in by downplaying it. Women are altogether too modest. And I don’t mean in our dress, but in certain of our behaviors.
In this context, I’ve sprung the memory of a particularly goofy incident from my first summer home from college. I had offered to do the cooking for a dinner party my mother was having, and I decided to attempt orange duck, a trick never before assayed in my mother’s kitchen. But I, with my newly sophisticated palate, decided I could invent this dish just fine. The details of the adventure are fogged, mercifully, by the mists of history, though I believe marmalade may have been involved. What I do remember was my mother’s very clear instruction: If the guests remarked on my culinary effort, I was to say “Oh, it was nothing.” “It was nothing,” I parroted, after the first de rigeur praise from her friends, only to hear my mother announce, “Oh, she was in the kitchen working all day.”
Why is this paradoxical experience still with me? Because it seems to me a paradigm for a lot of what goes on in our lives decades later We still feel, in too many cases, that it is somehow impolite to own up to the effort we put into our projects, and to take full credit for their success.
I’ve been struck by how modest we at Lilith have been about making sure the magazine’s intellectual capital—its nearly 30 years of shaping ideas, its wonderful writers and artists and design—gets the recognition it deserves. We are reluctant. We are reluctant—why?—to make sure our intangible contributions are appropriately noted on the balance sheet.
Tangibles aren’t easy either. We have been talking with donors about how to acknowledge the people who further Lilith’s work with their generous tax-deductible contributions. “You shouldn’t make distinctions among women of different capacity. It’s so much more feminist that way,” offered one woman. How can we reconcile this distinctly female yearning for parity—a flattening of the bell-shaped curve so that more of us fall in the middle—with the truth that unless we highlight women who are exceptions (exceptionally generous, exceptionally good at science) we lose the opportunity to raise the bar for all women?
When Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, notoriously remarked recently on women’s underrepresentation at the highest levels of science, I thought about the sort of strange regression-to-the-mean that happens in groups of women. It’s very difficult to be exceptional because of your accomplishments. It’s OK to stand out as the prettiest, the shapeliest, or the wearer of the most gorgeous clothes. But it is still considered a bit immodest to admit to working hard toward explicit, lofty goals. (I don’t claim that the orange duck was such a goal, but the dynamic was the same. I tell the story only to underscore how, in ways large and small, we tamp down our own self-pride and try to modulate this quality in others.) We no longer call this “unladylike.” We’re too highly evolved to do that. Instead, we run the risk of thinldng that standing out is “anti-feminist”—or, in another lexicon, “elitist.”
If we are serious (and we’d better be) about making sure women are represented in the upper echelons of scientific achievement, and also in politics, the arts, academic life and everywhere else, then we have to appreciate the ones who stand outside of—and above—the norm, better than the rest of us, whether it’s in philanthropic giving or in any other endeavor We can’t let these women get away with saying, “Oh, it was nothing.” Many a woman, when asked about her career trajectory, answers that chance played a big part. “I was in the right place at the right time.” Or, “I never imagined this position would be mine.” Well, time to borrow a dictum from Louis Pasteur, a scientist neither Jewish nor female. He said, memorably, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
Plenty of women now have prepared minds. They’re ready to move ahead or move up. The emotional intelligence that business-school gurus say makes for the best leaders is a gift women are thought to have in abundance—empathy for others, a thoughtful acknowledgement that our moods affect those around us, a reluctance to toot our own horns. But maybe a charming, self-deprecating modesty that works well for men holds women back from admitting their own strength and capacity. If we’re serious about grooming women to assume the leadership of the Jewish world the next generation inherits, we need to see the exceptional women in our midst as deserving of our support, not as aberrations to be pulled back into conforming to the mean.