Imagine the following situation: A woman shows up to the meeting fully prepared: the documents are spotless, she has done her research, she is confident about having all relevant data and about understanding all the content. She presents her findings and her conclusion. Then, one of the men (who knows little or nothing about the topic) says: “Are you sure?!” “Yes,” the woman replies, not showing how annoyed she is. After all, she put all the effort into it, and still they think she is not sure or even imply she may be wrong. “Well, I think I have read something somewhere…,” one man says. “But my friend [side note: not an expert either] thinks XYZ,” another one says. The group agrees the woman should go back and check again.
Has this ever happened to you? It for sure has happened to me – in the professional environment but also in my personal life. One of my favourite more recent examples is from 2020. When the travel bans were implemented, I was not able to travel back to Thailand for months. I did all the research, talked to experts, but it was simply impossible. Yet, I heard the annoying “Are you sure?” usually followed by “A friend of mine says blablabla”. It really upset me. Did they imply I was too stupid to check? I knew this type of conversation from work but in this moment, the implicit judgement of my competencies and knowledge had also entered my personal life. Furthermore, it upset me, because I know that if I had been a man in the same situations, I would have never been asked this question.
Frankly, it took me quite a while to learn how to deal with it. I am actually not sure if I have reached the best solution as yet. But I learned one thing: If someone knows you well, knows about your work ethics and standards and all the effort you put into anything you do, they will not ask you this question. It is one thing to have an open discussion, accept feedback and dig deeper into topics and issues we may have not discovered.
Maybe it was the easy way out, but I just removed myself from professional and personal relationships with people who question me that way. I focused more on those who “add value” (Hello, degree in Business!) I read somewhere that we ourselves are a reflection of the five people to whom we are closest. When I think about these five people in my case they are all hard-working, honest, direct (in a positive way), set themselves very high standards and are just good people in general. None of them are the “Are you sure?”-type. And I myself do not want to be such a person either.
I surround myself with people who I consider better and smarter than myself. Firstly, because I learn from the them. Secondly, because I need to cover my a**. If someone is more experienced, they are able to guide me into the right direction. The people I consider mentors or peers I trust are not the ones who start the discussion with “Are you sure?”. Their rhetoric is very different and they do not go down the path of potentially embarrassing someone publicly.
When people ask me for advice or present a project or issue about which they feel passionate, I try to be encouraging. I do point out flaws or mistakes but I do not do it in public. I give feedback in a one-on-one meeting. I know that my feedback can be harsh sometimes, because I assess others the same way I would assess myself. Hence, the standards are very high. But I would never want to make my counterpart feel stupid or question their abilities. On the contrary, I try to push them to believe in themselves and achieve great things.
As mentioned above, I have not found the perfect answer or reaction as yet. Probably because I keep seeing the gender difference here. Every time I was put into that situation, I wanted to say: “Would you ask me that if I was a man?” But I know it would not make any sense. They would come up with a great response about their efforts regarding equality and make me look silly in the end. Hence, I think I need to work on that angle. If you have any advice or possible way to react, I am happy to hear about it. It would be interesting to carry out a research project and analyse if women are more likely to be asked this question than man. I think we all know what the data would probably say.
I would like to close this postcard with one important thing I have learned over the years: The people I tend to look up to, those who I really admire, do not look down upon others or try to make them lose face in front of others. Encouragement and fair criticism over embarrassment.