Painted Background

The Dangers of My Female Utopia

By Katherine Fung

The smartest person in the room is always a woman. At least, that’s how it’s always been in my life. This of course has not prevented me from hearing my fair share of precautionary tales about institutionalized misogyny, mansplaining, glass ceilings and sticky floors that would all accumulate into the inevitable unfair treatment I would eventually face. But for some reason it has never come, at least not to the extent that I was armed for.

I grew up in a family where women shone brighter than men. While uncles worked overnight security shifts at hospitals, my aunts brought home hefty incomes from executive positions that paid for all-inclusive vacations and lavish gifts. And although my grandmother was a homemaker who worked the occasional odd job, she excelled in comparison to my grandfather at what grandparents are supposed to do: spoiling their grandchildren. My own mother offered something else: work ethic. New to a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language, my mom sacrificed all her time building a business until one day, she would run her own chain of spas. I grew up watching my aunts, my grandmother and my mom as they proved time and time again that women were more financially successful, more emotionally caring and harder-working than their male counterparts.

Then at a time in my youth when I was most impressionable, I spent six years at an all-girls school. It was a feminist fantasy world on crack. Behind the ivy-covered walls was a place where sex education focused on female satisfaction, the administration took action against schoolgirls who sexualized male staff and beautifying yourself to attend school was not only absurd, but girls bragged about having poor hygiene. Open discussion of women’s issues was so common that it had never crossed my mind these topics could be taboo. Because the student body, the majority of the faculty and the alumnae were all incredibly smart women, I was being taught that my gender was what made me most powerful.

Author and her six friends dressed in their school uniforms.

Me (far left) at the peak of my impressionable youth: senior year. These grad belts probably gave us a sense of entitlement no 17 year-old girls should have.

Perhaps my predisposition to female-dominated environments led me to choose a university program that was composed of almost 80 per cent female students. It was a long running joke that the highly debated gender gap in the STEM programs at the school were actually minuscule in comparison to the one in my faculty of information and media studies. In the majority of my classes, the odd one out was always the person with the penis. My undergrad resembled much of my high school career, with the occasional interjection of the male perspective. I did meet guys outside of my program that seemed oblivious to institutionalized misogyny. Many male friends I met in my first year were condescending, but from what I saw, they still sat at the mercy of incredibly gifted female friends. The know-it-all male dorm neighbour could always be found begging my best friend Hannah to study with him before our psychology exams. Hannah effortlessly claimed the title of the smartest person on our residence floor and went on to score in the ninety-third percentile on her MCAT before accepting an offer of admission to one of the top medical schools in Canada.

When I began my master’s program in journalism, I anticipated finally having men undermine my intellect. When I showed up to my first day of orientation, 15 faces stared back at me. Only one was a man’s. Anecdotes that friends told me about unequal treatment by classmates or colleagues suddenly began to seem like myths.

I have never really understood what it’s like to be in a room where a man dominates the conversation. Of course, it is empowering and reassuring to be surrounded by so many bright and clever women, but knowing that my success is not limited by the bounds of womanhood, has also raised my expectations of other women.

I unintentionally hold the women I meet to greater standards and struggle to grapple with how some women don’t have the same unwavering belief that we are just as capable as men. The unexplainable gravitational force that exists between smart women and myself has made me less empathetic to women who may not have been granted the same affordances I was allowed – women who were not cheered on at every step but rather told no after no after no.

More importantly, the ubiquity of female success has instilled a fear in me: A fear that when I do face the gender inequality I have always prepared for, that all my female environments have warned me about, I will fall into the same fate of the women I criticize. I will feel helpless to those that think less of me as a woman and I won’t be ready to fight back.