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Are Women Strong and Brave?

Strong Woman

Because I had such clear, shameless messages as a child that women are evil, and that women deserve less than men (see last blog post), I have always recognized those messages more clearly than many people around me. I believed this as an innocent child and deliberately decided to change the belief as a young adult. So, I can see where it comes through in culture – sometimes on a muted level and sometimes as directly as I experienced it when I was little.

This is the invisible gorilla test that Daniel Kahneman talks about in Thinking Fast and Slow. In the invisible gorilla experiment, researchers asked participants to count how many times people in a video passed a basketball back and forth. While the players passed the basketball, a person in a gorilla suit walked through the group. The study showed that when participants were focused on the players passing the ball, they did not even notice the person in the gorilla suit. Once researchers pointed out the gorilla, though, it was impossible to miss. This shows that selective attention narrows our ability to perceive the whole picture.

But, when we know a person in a gorilla suit might walk by (or when we know that the idea that women are evil is possible and acceptable to a lot of people), we can recognize it.

After college, and embracing the idea of being a feminist, I moved to Ukraine as a Peace Corps volunteer because I wanted to prove myself through helping. Ukraine in the early 2000's was another place where the message that women deserved less than men was openly embraced. I was teaching a 9th grade class on Valentine’s Day, and I decided to do an exercise that forced them to use the descriptive words they were learning. I said they needed to write a love story between a man and a woman (I know, heteronormative, but I was making baby steps with them), and first they needed to describe both characters.

The woman was strong and brave, they said. She worked hard and had big muscles.

The man was very beautiful and kind, they told me. He was good at cooking and had stylish clothes.

At first, I was so excited. All of my lessons about gender stereotypes were paying off! Then, I realized what was happening. I realized before the students did, and I got them to pretty thoroughly describe the story before they started yelling.

“No, Ms. Holley!” they said. “We moved the words! We have the wrong words!” I innocently told them I had no idea what they were talking about. “The woman is not strong and brave!” they said. “And the man is not beautiful and kind!!” They were jumping out of their seats to fix the error, which was pretty outrageous for a Ukrainian classroom, where the students were taught that their elbows could never leave their desks. I was laughing hysterically at them.

“I’m strong and brave. Right?” I asked. “I moved to a different country just to meet all of you.” They conceded the point, but they were incredibly disturbed about the mistake. We had another lesson on gender stereotypes, which was one of my favorite experiences of my time in Ukraine. The students were brilliant, and, like me as a child, they had no shame around sharing the sexism they were raised with.

While I was in Ukraine, I also had the chance to create a program that allowed my high school students to tutor elementary school students from the local orphanage (all participants ended up, not by design, being girls). It was so fun to be able to openly work to challenge what girls were capable of, with kids whose lessons on gender were so similar to what mine had been growing up. I saw in these girls the assumption that they were allowed to be smart, as long as they used it in a nurturing way – as with volunteering to tutor – but, they would not speak out and would defer to boys they knew were wrong in class.

At the same time that I was doing all of this good work, however, I was being stalked by a music teacher who had been fired from the music institute for molesting his female students. He would call my home and talk with my host mother. He would show up at my school. Early on, my host teacher told me it would be a good idea to go to a private violin concert with this stalker. We went to the Palace of Culture, which was a local performance theater, and he played the violin, to a giant theater with an audience of only me and my host teacher, with the accompaniment of a boom box playing R&B.

The Peace Corps had trouble responding to the issue, and, at some point, one of the security directors resigned – I believe at least in part because of the conflict around how to appropriately respond. Ultimately, security decided that I could be safe in the town, despite this music teacher’s phone calls and constant presence, as long as I let my students know that I would need to leave the town if I saw him again. I found out in my exit interview that he had come to the school multiple times, and the school had just withheld that information from me. But, at the same time, I knew that my students and their families cared about me and would keep me safe. I knew I had advocates in the nursing staff at Peace Corps. I knew each of the volunteers in my cohort was family and would do anything for me. I had resources.

When I was leaving, my 9th grade class (I’m one to pick favorites, and they were far and away my favorites) asked me why I went to Ukraine. I told them, “I wanted to help you.” They looked confused.

“We don’t need your help,” they said.

I laughed. “I know that now,” I said, “Thank you for helping me.”

That experience gave me a tremendous amount of dissonance around my idea that I would help the disadvantaged in contrast to my own sense of being vulnerable and unsafe. For much of my experience, I was being stalked and I couldn’t buy food without help. How would I help the people I wanted to help? What could I offer if I was in danger myself?

I learned in Ukraine that often I was safe, when it seemed like I might be in danger. I also learned that my discomfort and unhappiness did not, in itself, help anybody. Just because something seemed hard or dangerous to me did not mean I was helping someone else. I had to reevaluate what I wanted from life and how I could contribute to others through my own happiness and fulfillment.


This is a selection from Career Defense 101: How to Stop Sexual Harassment Without Quitting Your Job. For a free copy of the book, visit Or you can purchase online via Amazon or Barnes & Noble (paperback $16.95, hardcover $24.95).

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