What ‘women’s intuition’ really means

This week:

  • The phrase ‘a woman’s intuition’ is used to cover a multitude of sins
  • Reading the tone of the room is a skill
  • Women develop this skill as a survival instinct
Photo by Milad Farhani on Pexels.com

Welcome to this month’s blog which comes from me needing to rant.  I have attempted to structure my thoughts and make a sensible, informed and readable article for you.  I hope it’s useful.

Women have ‘intuition’ aaaaaargh

Let’s examine this.

What is intuition?

Supposed ‘intuition’ is a SKILL.

It is based on small social and linguistic cues, such as body language and tone.  Not to mention something as obvious as what people are saying.

Reading a room can include things such as:

  • How many people are in the room?
  • What is the ratio of men to women?
  • Who is seated and who is standing?
  • Who is sitting/standing together in obvious pairs or groups?
  • How crowded is it and how easy is it to move around and mingle?
  • Where are the doors/exits and how easy are they to get to?
  • Who is talking?  (To the whole room or to their group)
  • How loudly are people talking?  (Specifically which individuals are talking loudest)
  • What are they talking about?  (Is it something you know about and can join in with?  Is it something you’re uncomfortable with, such as sexist jokes?  Because if it’s the latter, you know who to avoid)
  • Who is in charge/who is in authority?  (Because you want to know where to head if you need help)

Who can do it?

Theoretically, anyone can have this skill.

However, it is often attributed to women.

I am deeply uncomfortable with this for many reasons.  A few of those reasons are:

  1. It undermines the logical, reasonable opinions of women by dismissing them as ‘intuition’ (more on this later)
  2. It implies that men can’t do this, when they actually can
  3. It erases the skills of the men who can do it
  4. It doesn’t take into consideration any differences between people’s ways of thinking and ostracises neurodivergent people who may or may not develop this skill in the same way as neurotypical people

‘Intuition’ is a learned technique of observation and processing what that could mean.  It is not a magical ability gifted to certain humans because of their chromosomes.

Why women develop the skill of ‘intuition’

Women are SOCIALISED into learning this skill.

Men – often – do not have to learn this skill.

From a very young age, women are taught (directly and indirectly) to read the room and individuals as an (often subconscious) survival instinct.

This can be actual survival (saving her life by exiting a situation or getting away from a certain person), avoiding physical or sexual assault, avoiding harassment, or keeping her job.

The range of reasons that a woman has to learn this skill is incredible.

This is one of the reasons that I get angry about it being dismissed as ‘intuition’ or a ‘feeling’ rather than a logical conclusion based on experience.  Women have developed this skill for a reason.

Picking up ‘vibes’ is often a person’s subconscious tracking body language, movement, tone of voice, volume, what is being said and taking note of the layout of the room.

That might sound weird but where people are standing can be a big part of this.  For instance, is the door blocked?  How many other women are in the room?  Is it too loud in the room for people to hear you speak and/or call for help?  How close are people standing to you and how high do they loom over you?

From where to sit on the bus to how to behave at a business meeting, women must constantly track the social cues in a never-ending quest for survival.

Note: there is a whole other discussion to be had about how People of Colour, openly or visibly queer people, and people with disabilities also have to learn this skill, but I am not the person to wade into that.

As for my previous comment about women needing to learn how to read a room in order to be successful at work:

Yes, learning to read the room and her colleagues is a necessary skill for any woman who wants to keep her job or get promoted at a reasonable, earned rate, especially in a high-profile, high-salary or male-dominated industry.  There are so many articles and studies out there which demonstrate the seemingly impossible task of being a woman at work.  Should she stay quiet, let others speak, work hard, not blow her own trumpet and then get passed over for promotion because nobody remembers who she is?  Or should she bang tables, speak loudly, power dress, call others out on their mistakes and be dismissed as too radical?  Loud men are assertive.  Loud women are pushy.

Women – and it will be a shock for some people to hear this, I know – are people.  They are flawed.  They have individual personalities.  We are not a homogeneous group who will all act and think the same way.  Not all women have the same experiences.  Not all women are neurotypical.

Some women will have developed this skill of observation much more than others, and will act on it differently or be on the look-out for different things.  So this ‘women’s intuition’ can’t be pinned down to one thing.  It is a broad spectrum of observations based on the woman’s needs, experiences and skill set.

How to develop this observation and processing skill

‘Women’s intuition’ is often described as getting a ‘bad feeling’ about a certain person or project, or ‘guessing’ how to make a person open up to them.

Some people can do this with seeming ease.

Actually, though, they are processing information and making a logical choice based on their observations.  They are just doing it subconsciously because it’s become so ingrained that they don’t notice they’re doing it.

A project that ‘seems off’ will have small details that don’t add up.  Almost negligible in terms of the big picture but still… not right.  Those details need to be examined and corrected to fit with the rest of the project before it will feel ‘right’.  They could be tiny indications that the project isn’t as well thought-through or as fool-proof as you’re being told.

A person who gives you a ‘bad vibe’ will be doing or saying something that makes you uncomfortable.  Maybe they’re looking at you funny.  Maybe they make jokes you don’t find amusing.  Maybe they’re too handsy or stand too close.  Identifying why someone makes you uncomfortable will help you decide what to do about it: do you point it out to them, report them to someone else or avoid them?

If you want to develop your ‘intuition’ then you need to examine these things consciously.

Any time you get a ‘bad feeling’, don’t ignore it or act on it without thinking.  Examine it.  Try and identify what the source of the feeling is.  The more you narrow it down, the more you’ll see that you haven’t made an illogical assumption, you’re responding to something there in front of you.  It’s just that sometimes other people won’t see it.

Conclusion

A whole range of people need to develop this skill-set in order to navigate the world safely and to the best of their ability.

Dismissing women’s legitimate concerns and observations as ‘feelings’ is patronising and allows misogynist structures to build up in many spaces and businesses.

Developing these skills takes time.  It takes practice and effort.  If it looks like someone has already learned it at a young age, they might be pre-disposed to observe people closely or it might be they’ve already been practicing the skill for a long time (since childhood).

Many people can develop this skill, if they want to.

If you have this skill, don’t sell it short or doubt yourself.  You know something others don’t.  Trust your own judgement and identify the source of your ‘feelings’ and ‘intuition’.

Read

If you like reading interesting feminist articles about films, books, writing and life in general, check out all my Gender Equality posts.

You can see my review of Caroline Criado-Perez’s Invisible Women (it’s utterly fascinating), read my advice on how to write great female secondary characters, and find out just who wrote a passive heroine and active heroine in the same book.

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