It takes me longer to hitch up my RV when someone is watching: On the psychology of being a solo woman traveller

An audience can make anyone nervous. When I was in school, I had no trouble solving math problems with a pencil and paper, but when the teacher asked me to work one on the blackboard, my brain turned into pudding. I suffered from stage fright, and the fear of looking stupid in front of other people made it nearly impossible to think.

girls can't what?But, in addition to this everyday kind of stage fright, people can face extra challenges doing their best work. Psychologists have identified  Stereotype Threat as one of those challenges.  Stereotype Threat can occur when a person is performing a task that has the potential to reinforce negative stereotypes about their group.

When triggered, Stereotype Threat makes people perform less well than they would have otherwise. And sadly, it is very easy to trigger. Being the only member of your group in a room or filling out a survey that asks about your gender before taking a test can do it.

I hypothesize that when people watch me hitch up my trailer, I screw up more than usual because, in addition to stage fright, I experience stereotype threat.

Hooking up a trailer is a gendered activity (it is associated with men), and people seem to expect women to be bad at it.

In my three months of camping

  • I never saw another woman do this task.
  • Women and men often expressed surprise when they saw me doing this task. I got questions like “Did you level it yourself?”
  • Men walking by regularly offered to help me.
  • Women walking by never offered to help me.
  • Some women walking by offered to go get their husbands so their husbands could help me.
  • Sometimes people just stared at me while I hitched my trailer up.

Granted, some of them could have been wondering about a person doing this on their own; another set of eyes would have made it easier. But, I strongly suspect that people would have been less fascinated by a guy doing this on his own than by a woman doing it on her own.

When people watched me hitch up my trailer I felt very aware of being a woman. In fact, the only time on this trip when I felt so conscious of identifying as a woman was when an obnoxious drunk guy stumbled onto my campsite and started giving me grief. I need to thank my German Shepherd, Milo, for his support in that situation.

Hitching up my trailer in front of an audience seems like a ‘perfect’ situation for stereotype threat to do its thing.

It’s weird that it took me months to figure this out because I study women and minorities in science and engineering, and in that context stereotype threat is A. Big. Deal.

And I wish I’d noticed this sooner because there are things a person can do to protect themselves (and the people around them) from experiencing stereotype threat.

I could have:

  • spent some time on a women RVers facebook group to remind myself that even though I didn’t see them, there are lots of women who can do this chore
  • reminded myself of women who had exemplary mechanical abilities
  • reminded myself that I was actually really good at this task
  • reminded myself that everyone has trouble attaching the weight distribution bars sometimes.

Research shows that all of these things could have helped me reduce my experience of Stereotype Threat, and that would have made being a solo woman RVer more fun!

Michele Mouton

What would champion French Rally Driver Michele Mouton do?

Here’s a link explaining how you can reduce the effects Stereotype Threat. Some of the advice is about how to help ourselves, and some of it is about how to protect the people around us–great information for parents, teachers, managers, and anyone who loves someone who might be hurt by Stereotype Threat.

And, here’s a link to an article about the 10 most successful women race car drivers ever. 

From now on when I hitch up my trailer, and someone is watching I’ll ask myself WWMMD? What would Michele Mouton do?

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