Do Women Get to be Experts?

Was that sexist? Did he treat me that way because I’m a woman? Or would everything that just happened be exactly the same if I were a man?

Those are familiar questions for women. For as many times when you can know for sure you’ve experienced sexism, there are so many more times when you can’t be sure — but you wonder.

For me right now, most of the questions are coming from my new job. I’m in grad school for sociology, but I’m an avid hiker and backpacker when I’m not studying. I decided to take a part time job at an outdoor gear retailer.

I am a woman, I am short, and I look a decade younger than my age.

I’m used to all of the usual nonsense solo women backpackers get: people think we aren’t safe in the woods alone, or well-meaning men assume we can’t lift our own backpacks and offer to help, or they ask if we’re just like Cheryl Strayed, the woman who wrote about her 1,000 mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in her bestselling book Wild.

Mostly it’s not offensive. It just gets old.

Now that I’m in a position to advise all levels of hikers, from novice to expert, on their gear, I suspect my gender plays into my interactions in another way. I can’t prove it, but I suspect that the advice I give would be trusted more if I were a man.

As a sociologist, I know that people interpret my behavior in relation to their expectations of a woman’s gender role. I’m expected to be nurturing. If I step out of line, I become “shrill” or “bossy.”

Womanhood becomes a real drag when I’m in roles I am qualified for and my expertise is questioned in ways it would not be if I were a man.

Masculinities scholar R.W. Connell found that middle class men express their masculinity through expertise and knowledge.

It’s not true that nobody will ever see a woman as an expert. Nor is it true that all men are seen as experts. It simply means that because expertise is seen as a “masculine” trait, we find it easier to believe a man is an expert than a woman is one.

And when we do this, we don’t see ourselves as sexist. Although our impressions of other are colored by the biases we all hold about race, class, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, and so on, they feel so natural that we don’t think we are biased at all. When people are biased but unaware of their biases, it makes it very difficult to discuss or change those biases.

When I advise a customer that the gear they’re buying is unsuitable for the hike they’re planning, or that the hike they are planning will be unpleasant at best and dangerous at worst, they often don’t believe me.

Do I just look like a silly little girl who couldn’t possibly provide expert advice about backpacking? Or would they equally blow off a man giving the same advice? I’ll never know.

Being a woman doesn’t just mean experiencing clear cut, obvious instances of sexism. It also means constantly wondering if you would have been treated with more respect if you were a man, then wondering what the heck to do about it — and most of the time, doing nothing at all.

Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.