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“the confidence gap”

Why leaning in and minding the confidence gap is a help, not a hindrance, to feminism

The thing I love most about blogging is the conversation it inspires. I have a whip-smart blogger friend who responded to my Mother’s Day post about Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s article The Confidence Gap. She wrote,

I don’t disagree with the sentiments in this article, but in general I’m not wildly keen on this new direction feminism seems to be taking, of the Lean In ilk – i.e. the reason women don’t have equality with men is an intrinsic problem with women, e.g. that we aren’t confident enough, or that we don’t “Lean In” enough rather than external factors such as discrimination, workplace policies etc.

i.e. it’s not the system that needs fixing- it’s you.

This kind of thinking is becoming increasingly common and gives a way too easy get out clause for employers and law makers in my opinion.

She shared Jessica Valenti’s article that calls the confidence gap “a sham,” citing it as a good summary of her own criticism of Kay and Shipman’s (and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In) focus on addressing sexism from an internal, confidence-building perspective.

This argument has become very familiar because I’m a woman and I live in the Bay Area and I’ve read Lean In. I’ve had a version of this conversation too many times to count.

Photo by Mark Biddle
Photo by Mark Biddle

I understand the worry that my friend and Valenti and a lot of the feminist critics of Lean In have — shifting our focus to ways that women can/should “fix” themselves blames inequality on women and lets the larger structural forces of inequality off the hook. I see their point. If the whole story isn’t told, then it is an easy way out–if the towering structures of sexist oppression go unmentioned, then discussions like these can easily slip into a 101 on why women are the problem. But doing the equal and opposite–throwing Sandberg and Kay and Shipman under the bus in order to defend a focus on structural inequality–deprives all of us of a revealing and potentially empowering part of this story. And ultimately, it weakens the cause we’re all trying to advance.

The reason I and many other women dig Lean In and The Confidence Gap is because they reveal to us that our chronic self-doubt or perfectionism or shrinking back in meetings is not an isolated personal problem, but rather it’s an individual reaction to a structural problem–a micro symptom of a macro structural issue.

Suddenly, I can see the forest for the trees! I doubt myself because as a woman, I’m constantly being doubted. My talking less and making sure my proposal is perfect and only applying for the job when I meet every single qualification are all fair responses to a system that’s stacked against me. It’s not because I’m a terrible communicator or because I’m an idiot, it’s because I exist within a structure that breeds that kind of behavior.

Feminism is a cause that needs to be championed internally and externally, because its effects are both internal and external. And when we throw out the baby with the bathwater, as Valenti does in her article, we waste the energy of our cause on posturing rather than parsing out the specifics of our disagreements.

Even so, this criticism of Valenti’s is well-founded.

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”.

Women’s lack of self-belief is a huge effing problem. Is it “more profound” than their earning less than men for the same work or crippling second shift that women shoulder as working mothers? No. But is it a symptom created by the larger structural issue? Yes. And we do ourselves and our cause no favors by leveling such blunt criticism at writers who are analyzing research that reveals the individual symptoms of structural gender inequality. We desperately need to illuminate both the symptoms and the causes if we’re going to cure the disease of sexism.

Don’t we all agree that structural sexism sucks and needs to be addressed? Can’t we also gain some liberation from seeing how those structures influence the way we see ourselves and choose to act in our every day lives? This is a case of the micro and the macro both feeding into each other. Pitting one against the other is not productive.

I’m all for addressing the towering structures of misogyny and inequality built into our system. I’ve also felt better and bigger and stronger in my few days since reading Kay and Shipman. I resisted my own urge to over-prepare for a meeting yesterday and was able to think more creatively and on my feet as a result. And instead of saying, “I know a little bit about script writing” in response to an inquiry at work, I replied, “I’ve freelanced as a script writer. I’d love to help.” Surprise, surprise, I’m now on the script writing project. And I love it.

In leaning in and addressing my own internal confidence gap, do I feel like I’m shouldering responsibility for gender inequality and letting the system off the hook? Hell no. In fact, I feel pretty kick-ass and more equipped to go out and deal with all that structural crap.

The cause of feminism will only benefit from sexism being addressed both internally and externally. Let’s support women who contribute to telling the whole, complex story of inequality and throw this either/or thinking out the window.

The one thing you should read on Mother's Day

If there’s one thing worth reading on Mother’s Day, this is it.

The confidence gap

I’ll tell you why.

1) It’s really long and involved. So if you are a mother yourself, you can plea Mother’s Day and hole up in the bathroom, or luxuriate in bed even!! and have about 20 minutes to yourself while reading it.

2) It may rattle you, just like this statement rattled me:

The natural result of low confidence is inaction. When women don’t act, when we hesitate because we aren’t sure, we hold ourselves back. But when we do act, even if it’s because we’re forced to, we perform just as well as men do.

And the great thing about being rattled is that it can lead to us trying, in small ways every day, to change our habits.

2) If you are a man, you should also know about this, since it affects all of the mothers you’ve ever met, including your own. My hope is that after you read it, you’ll encourage the women in your life to take up more space and to try on crazy statements like “I’m gonna try this and see what happens.”

3) Using this article as a springboard to change our habits can create a world filled with a bunch of self assured women with children. Legions of moms who proudly and unflinchingly answer the question, “Do you work?” with “Are you asking if I have a paid job? Or about the work I do all the time of raising human beings?” Imagine seeing the women in your life champion their expertise on a daily basis and take their mistakes in stride rather than talking themselves down. The thought gives me chills.

If I haven’t convinced you already or if you just don’t have the time or inclination, then you can just read my little cliff notes version here and talk to your friends like you did read it.

If women continue to habitually make self-effacing comments like, “I think so, but I’m really not sure” or “I’m really bad at this,” then our children will learn what we did: It’s most important that women not ruffle feathers and play nice. Fit in. Don’t talk too loud or too much. Before you trot your ideas out into the world, make sure they’re perfect.

I’m shocked at how much more easily and instinctively the men in my life step up and take their place. AJ applies for jobs even when he doesn’t meet and exceed every single requirement. He assumes he is smart and can figure it out. He authoritatively offers his opinions even when he’s not 100% sure. There is just a fundamental way that I see AJ and the men around me taking up space like it’s assumed that they should. The women I know often struggle with this, because we’ve been coached implicitly and explicitly our whole lives to make room for others, be kind, defer.

…the result is that many girls learn to avoid taking risks and making mistakes. This is to their detriment: many psychologists now believe that risk taking, failure, and perseverance are essential to confidence-building. Boys, meanwhile, tend to absorb more scolding and punishment, and in the process, they learn to take failure in stride.

As I was reading this I had to work through my own criticisms. “Not all women want to be CEOs. What’s wrong with wanting to be a stay at home mom?” My answer to myself: nothing. Nothing in the world. My second answer: Women CEOs and stay at home moms would all benefit greatly from a confidence boost–a willingness to turn their ideas into actions even if they’re not 100% sure they’ll succeed. The impact of our children watching us try new things and sometimes fail but not blame ourselves and try again is just as powerful as a woman exec. changing company policy in the direction of more paid maternity and paternity leave.

I’m also resistant to any argument that women need to be more like men in order to succeed. But couldn’t we take the confidence page from the man playbook and make it our own? Couldn’t we turn more of our ideas into action and assert more of our opinions and put our own female spin on it? What would our confidence look like if we internalized it to the point that we didn’t have to look to the example of men to remember how to do it?

Today, on Mother’s Day, I will practice confidence.

It is the factor that turns thoughts into judgments about what we are capable of, and that then transforms those judgments into action.

I will practice thinking that I am capable. And using my capability to try. And if it doesn’t work out, I’ll try not to blame myself and to shrug it off and try again. Sigh. This sounds hard. Like any sort of work I’ve ever done in trying to shift my habits.

But they’re just habits, people. We can change ’em.