I was thinking about this recently. I’m writing a very independent and stubborn character, Anna of the East Witch, and as I was writing a scene from her point of view, I found it interesting how viscerally she rejected the notion that she was in some way specially talented. Now, I’m perfectly aware that my characters are in some ways extensions of my self, for all that they seem quite real to me and I enjoy writing them out and seeing how differently they handle a situation than I would. In this case, though, I sympathized with Anna. She wasn’t special. She had just done what anyone in her situation would do, had worked hard, done what she was told, and eventually she’d gotten the position as top dog in her business because she worked hard. It wasn’t magic, it was just plain old hard work and dedication.
I don’t think of myself as particularly smart or special. I don’t like being called stupid, but having never had my IQ tested, I’d estimate my smarts as average. What I do have is a decent work ethic, inculcated in no small part by my homeschooled background. I have never learned the fine art of dilly-dallying. You see, as a homeschooler if you are given a task, you have a choice. You can work quickly, finish it, and get to go play (or read, or…). Or you can stretch it out as long as possible, and finish it up only with Mom breathing down your neck. I quickly picked up on the reward inherent in getting it done fast, and that’s become a habit with me that has lasted a lifetime. Sadly, in a regular school day there’s no reward for getting your work done ahead of days’ end, so that system builds the habit of filling the work to the available time in a school day. Which lines up nicely with a work day, so…
It’s still nothing special. It’s just that I like to work fast, I get a kick out of seeing a project to completion, and I can’t stand to sit and do nothing so when I’m done if I can’t go home I hunt up more work to do.
Anna in the story is facing down the fact that she is special, and I am worried that it will erode her confidence somewhat. If I give her too much time to dwell on it, she’s going to start worrying that this inborn talent of hers is how she got to the top, that it wasn’t her hard work, that she didn’t earn it but somehow cheated. I understand how that works, too. As a woman, I try not to think about the whole ‘diversity hire’ thing. The concept that I might at some point have been hired because they needed to balance a workforce by hiring a female. It doesn’t help that the word pops up on my timecard and mocks me… but I digress. The erosion of confidence in myself and my abilities through that fear dog me, and it’s only through learning to trust supervisors that I’ve been able to banish it and feel like I’m pulling my weight.
It is an insidious evil. Instituted by well-meaning if stupidly short-sighted people, affirmative action and diversity quotas lead to the very people meant to be assisted feeling as though they were devalued and hired only for their _______________ (insert physical attribute here). It’s haunting, to never know if you were really good enough, or if you just got that job because you were born that way. I watched Bright recently with the First Reader (and highly recommend it, if you haven’t already) and identified with the Orc, who was a diversity hire, was hated for it, and had a lot to prove as a result. It’s not a healthy dynamic. Pushed into recklessness in an effort to prove that you were just as good as everyone else is a dangerous position in Bright, and it’s no less so in the real world.
To be hired as a woman, simply because I am a woman, is to be dismissed as nothing special. It’s not my physical attribute that makes me any more special than anyone else. What sets me apart is my willingness to work hard, be on time, stay late when needed, and give it my best every day. I’m nothing special, and I don’t want to be treated like ‘special’ just equal to my peers. I certainly don’t want to be handed a little step-up and told in effect ‘you’re not as good as the men/elves/fairies so you need to have a boost if you’re to meet their level.’ I want to tackle it like Anna, head-on and without special considerations. Equality of opportunities, not equality of outcomes. You can’t guarantee if I’ll win, and if you do, you take away the reward of having won.