When I was 12, my music teacher in Bangladesh groped my breasts when my parents were not home. It is easy to see how egregious this behaviour was, and to clearly label such an individual as a “bad actor”, as indeed he was. But this incident has had no long-term negative impact on my life, on my career, or on my relationships. In contrast, what has had lasting impact on me are the low-dose but continuous injections of doubts about my abilities, and the chipping away at my confidence that I have encountered as a girl and a woman over the years. They started early and haven't stopped.
I grew up in Bangladesh where the society constantly made me feel inadequate because of my gender. Now I am part of an intellectual ecosystem that questions whether women have the stomach to take big risks, to dream big, or to drive new ideas and excel while being a mother and a wife. I think this type of questioning gets more pronounced with career advancement, and is a reason why many choose to leave a career in technology.
Let me highlight some of the comments I have gotten over the years that are indelible in my memory and that are representative of how my identity, ability and confidence have been constantly challenged.
An early childhood memory: a close family member tells me, “We were hoping you'd be a boy. Boys earn more and take care of their parents. Girls marry and look after their husband's family.” I am the younger of two daughters. At age 43, this is still one of my most vivid childhood memories, and the feeling of rejection is still raw.
Teenage years: a young man trying to date me tells me that “God gave women smaller brains than men, and that is why women would fare better listening to men.” I wish I then had the courage to say, “You might have a bigger brain, but mine works better!” Instead, his comment started to sow the seeds of insecurity within me.
In my 20s: my then boyfriend dumps me when I get into MIT for grad school, and for maintaining a higher GPA than him during our undergraduate years. I was devastated. That same summer, upon hearing I am doing my PhD at MIT, a family friend tells my mom, “You will have trouble finding a husband for her.” Getting into MIT was a dream come true for me, but it was hard to share the joy with even those close to me—instead I went through more rejection, and dreaded the prospect of more loneliness.
In my 30s: a senior male colleague who I deeply respect says to me, “If you are serious about your work, then you can't have a life or kids before tenure.” I start to fear that maybe I will lose my partner or never have kids. I feel torn for simultaneously wanting a successful career and a loving family.
In my 40s… a comment after one of my talks went something like this: “Very interesting work. Is it what you did when you were in X's (another white male professor) lab?” This time at least I had the courage to say, “No. I had my own lab. It was my inspiration that got the senior white male professor interested in the line of work that I had initiated.” Finally, I was confident enough to directly dispute the assumption made all too often that men are the leaders and women are the followers.
From childhood to now, I have been fortunate to have had champions and mentors who have believed in me—my parents, my husband, and several key senior male and female mentors. But from childhood to now, the doubting of my abilities, my intellect, and my creativity purely because of my gender has been draining and demoralising. When I am rewarded, I question whether the bar was set lower for me as a woman, or whether I truly deserve it. When I fail, I wonder where I would be today in my career as an academic or as an entrepreneur if I were a white male rather than a Bangladeshi-born woman. I will never know for sure. This feeling is tiring, emotionally draining and infuriating!
So, as we raise the next generation of Bangladeshi women in a patriarchal society, let's remember how casual comments or reinforcement of gendered norms, especially from those we trust and respect, can impact the small and big decisions that women make in their lives. I hope more men and women can engage in constructive dialogues to make things better. Subtle biases, casual comments and gendered expectations can squash our dreams, and force us to project an identity that helps us fit in but prevents us from feeling truly comfortable. Worst of all, it can have a lasting impact on our confidence and on our mental health.
Tanzeem Choudhury is a Professor of Computing and Information Sciences at Cornell University in the US and CEO of HealthRhythms, a health-tech start-up in New York City. She grew up in Bangladesh and was a student of Viqarunnisa Noon School & College. She is the only Bangladeshi tenured faculty at Cornell, a TED fellow and MIT Technology Review's TR35 winner.