Despite an ongoing, glaring lack of equality for women in culture and in policy, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s new book, The Confidence Code, argues that what’s truly holding women back is their own self-doubt. In fact, Kay and Shipman dismiss the importance of institutional barriers upfront, writing in the introduction that, while there’s truth behind concerns about sexism, the “more profound” issue is women’s “lack of self-belief”. Think Lean In meets The Secret.
Yet, in just the past year, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a woman can be fired if her boss finds her attractive, a New York court decided that unpaid interns can’t sue for sexual harassment, and the Paycheck Fairness Act was defeated by Republicans who claimed women actually prefer lower-paying jobs.
So you’ll have to excuse my guffaw when I hear what American women really need is more “confidence.” It seems to me our insecurity is well-earned!
It’s true that there’s a gendered disparity in confidence – American men overestimate their abilities and skills while women underestimate them. In fact, we’ve known this for some time: “imposter syndrome” – a phenomenon in which high-achieving women believe “they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise” – was first written about in 1978.
But the “confidence gap” is not a personal defect as much as it is a reflection of a culture that gives women no reason to feel self-assured.
In girlhood, starkly-divided toy aisles teach us that engineering, electronics and science toys are for boys, that the futures for which we should be preparing are those of the Barbie Dream House variety. Adolescent girls – especially girls of color – are given less teacher attention in the classroom than their male peers. A full 56% of female students report being sexually harassed. Sexual assault on college campuses is rampant and goes largely unpunished, women can barely walk down the street without fear of harassment, and we make up the majority of American adults in poverty.
The truth is, if you’re not insecure, you’re not paying attention. Women’s lack of confidence could actually just be a keen understanding of just how little American society values them.
While encouraging women to have more self-esteem is not a bad idea generally, there’s no evidence that being more assertive will change the way women are perceived in the workplace. Confident women at work are still labeled “bossy” and “bitchy”, to their own detriment – unless they can “turn it off”. And despite all the gains women have made, most Americans – men and women – would still prefer a male boss. While Kay and Shipman give a nod to ambitious women who are judged more harshly than their male peers, they seem to have no solution – other than putting the onus on women to change.
For example, when Kay and Shipman talked to young women participating in Running Start – an organization that trains college-aged women to run for public office – they heard from one woman worried about being labeled a “bitch” if she was too assertive. Another spoke up about the difference between going to an all-girls school – where everyone raised her hand – and her current school, where women didn’t speak up in class.
Kay and Shipman’s response is to bemoan “what a waste of energy and talent all this agonizing can be”. But where they see agonizing, I see identifying discrimination – a first step in taking action to end sexism. In the 1970s, this kind of consciousness-raising sparked a new wave of feminism. Now, decades later, women are perplexingly being advised to turn inward to solve external problems.
As is often the case when talking about workplace inequities, there’s also little talk in The Confidence Code about men’s role in all of this. Last week, the Wall Street Journal announced the lineup for its first international technology conference – and it was all-male. How can we enact the power of women’s confidence when there are no women in the room?
Telling women to meditate, “be grateful,” sit up straight and get good sleep (some of the book’s confidence “quick fixes”) might make us feel better – but it won’t make the world better. You can’t self-help away deeply-ingrained structural discrimination.
Besides, our “insecurity” can keep us sharp – a reminder of the truth of what it means to be a woman in the United States. We can still value ourselves while never forgetting how little the rest of the world does.
If we truly want women to be more confident – and for them to be able to express that confidence in a way that creates meaningful change – then we can start by creating a culture that values self-assured women. What’s the code for that?
Powered by Facebook Comments