Monday, December 8, 2014

Guest post: Life Chiasmus! How Smart You Are vs. How You Are Smart

Today's guest post is from Victoria Leenders-Cheng. Thanks, Victoria!
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This fall, I appeared on a CBC television show called Canada’s Smartest Person.

Here is a description of the show, from the website:

CANADA'S SMARTEST PERSON is a new television series that redefines what it means to be smart. We’ll shatter the myth that to be smart you need to have a high IQ, be a math whiz or trivia buff. Every week four new hopefuls battle it out in front of a live studio audience in six categories of smarts: musical, physical, social, logical, visual and linguistic. In the series finale eight finalists will go head to head to earn the title!
CANADA'S SMARTEST PERSON: It’s not how smart you are; it’s how you are smart.

You might have heard of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, on which this TV show is based. It tries to move assessments of intelligence away from traditional tests towards seven different measures (musical, physical, logical, visual, inter and intra-personal, and linguistic). Of course, when packaged for television, the theory loses some of its nuance.

During my qualification episode, we did speed math, puzzles, and a social intelligence challenge where we had to recognize micro expressions – that is, look at pictures of people’s eyes and guess what they were feeling. We also did a choreographed dance and an obstacle course with five challenges lined up one after the other.

I won my episode, meaning that I went on to compete in the grand finale, featuring, in the show’s bombastic terms, the eight smartest people in Canada. (There is no prize of any kind for winning, in case you are wondering. Just a title and bragging rights.) To my great surprise, when I walked into the studio for the first day of taping for the grand finale, I found myself staring at seven men.

I was the only woman to have made the finals. 

The show received almost 4,500 applications (mostly self-nominated, mostly men), which they whittled down to 32 participants. Of those 32, almost half were women. What happened along the way to eliminate all the women but one? Or was it just a coincidence and was I making too big a deal out of it? I’m still not sure I have the answer to those questions.

But here’s the thing. Women are underrepresented in domains ranging from entertainment, corporate environments (executive suite and boardroom alike), in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – fields, and in academia more generally. As a feminist studying human systems, I see my Canada’s Smartest Person experience, and my presence as the only woman in the finals, as a signal to examine this phenomenon.

Another aspect of my participation that made me uncomfortable was how the show dubbed me the "every woman," the woman with a family and job and exciting life showing that you can have and do it all.

A friend of mine who got her PhD from Harvard and is now a tenure-track professor and trying to figure out how to juggle career, family, and partner, while fending off societal pressure, heard this every woman description and sighed, “Is this where we are now? Is this the new feminism?”

I agree with her. When and how can we stop buying into models of achievement and fulfillment that make each other feel inadequate??

Again to quote the show:

Canada’s Smartest Person is igniting a national conversation about what it means to be smart.

I want Canada’s Smartest Person to ignite conversations about what it means to be a woman, about why women keep showing up in lower numbers in so many domains, and what it means to be a woman in a public environment with power dynamics established by our media and corporate agendas. As some people have been saying for decades, the personal is the political; arguably, the personal is the political is also the professional.

It’s all fine and good to talk, but we also need to act, or, as Sheryl Sandberg says, to the dismay of many feminists, we need to lean in.

What is perhaps most disappointing about Sandberg and Arianna Huffington and other powerful female icons of conventional success, is that they don’t seem to acknowledge the role that wealth has played in their own accomplishments. Financial security provides peace of mind and access to more options and opportunities; not every woman has this privilege.

But some things in life cost ‘nothing more’ than your sense of self; that is, the price of admission is psychological – you simply need to be willing to put yourself on the line:

-       To relinquish some control over the conditions of your own success (knowing that many of the conditions are out of your control anyway);
-       To potentially be or feel judged based on the most random of traits – weight, intelligence, motives, personality, appearance, etc. – and to be able to ignore those judgments when they are erroneous or irrelevant;
-       To confront and dismantle the fear that people will “discover that you are a fraud;” (when I lost in the finale with the lowest score, it triggered every single insecurity I had about being an imposter – this has probably been the hardest thing about the experience)
-       To advocate and believe in yourself with the understanding that nobody is perfect – if you aren’t athletic, fine; if your house is messy, who cares; if, like me, you are a terrible cook, embrace the disaster of your efforts. If you don’t like math, though, I strongly suggest you learn to like math…!
-       And then, ultimately, to figure out what you really want to do and do it.
As journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman argue in The Confidence Gap, men do many of the above without a second’s hesitation.

I know the points I raise here have been raised many times over but I want the conversation to continue, with humour and with love. I don’t want either men or women to feel blamed but I do want everyone to feel implicated: we are all responsible for asking ourselves the hard questions. I want, and on some days, I even dare to hope, for more.

I may have been the only woman on the finale of Canada’s Smartest Person this year, but if the show goes to a second season, I hope to see many of you out there.

Here I am on the finale...
...and here I am watching myself on television.


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Victoria Leenders-Cheng is the communications officer for the Faculty of Law at McGill and a master’s student in the Human Systems Intervention program at Concordia University. Find her on Twitter: @vleenderscheng

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