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The Confidence Gap: One of Feminism’s Self Inflicted Wounds


Despite many frequently heralded achievements, women lack confidence in their abilities compared to men and that “confidence gap” holds them back from further success. That news comes out of The Atlantic cover story “The Confidence Gap,” an article pieced together from excerpts of a new book by journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance–What Women Should Know.

I have no doubt that their research is correct. The confidence gap exists, for many at least, and is even aptly expressed by their opening phrasing on how women “kept our heads down and played by the rules” — neither of which are the habits of confident trailblazers.

But while their stories are apt, their reasoning highlights a common refusal to confront the unintended consequences of the second wave of feminism in the early ’60s. Like so many stories in contemporary women’s discourse, the confidence gap follows the pattern: avoid confronting the origins, ignore the lessons, and naively recommend inconsequential twists in the old, failing advice.

Whose Rules Are Women Playing By?

For an article, and a book, about how playing by the rules doesn’t serve women, I thought it odd they didn’t examine the rules themselves. If they did, they might have noticed the obvious. Women, as a group, have an acute lack of confidence not simply because they are playing by the rules but because they are trying, ever diligently, to play by men’s rules.

It is an old dilemma, whether or not we can achieve equality with men by copying men. It is the longstanding rift throughout feminism’s history and the battle fought and won by the copycats when Gloria Steinem took over NOW and the figurehead leadership of the second wave from Betty Friedan in the 1970s. Second wave feminists bought into men’s timelines and standards of success and made them women’s timelines and standards of success. From a 1981 interview in the New York Times about Freidan’s then-new (but trashed and then forgotten follow-up) book, The Second Stage:

Speaking of charges by some feminists that [Friedan] has sold out to the male and female conservative right, that her latest book may be interpreted as a retreat or a repudiation of all that the women's movement has fought for in the last 20 years, she says: "Some militants repudiated all the parts of the personhood of women that have been and are still expressed in family, home and love. In trying to ape men's lives, they have truncated themselves away from grounding experiences. If young women lock themselves into the roles of ambitious men, I'm not sure it's a good bargain. It can be terribly imprisoning and life denying."

Time has vindicated Friedan. It was not a good bargain. It should be obvious, but unfortunately isn’t—we will never be as good at being men as men are. Besides all of their biological advantages in this ‘being men’ contest, some of which Shipman and Kay covered, men don’t have to keep up illusions. In the grand tradition of nothing ventured, nothing gained, not having to ‘keep one’s head down’ to fit into rules and standards means they can risk more.

In the details, conforming to men looks like a setup to fail. To fit in, women set specific and unrealistic standards for success. Paid work, not volunteer work. And not the lowly paid work found in what used to be called “pink collar ghettos”, (the habit of feminists to equate women’s struggles with minority struggles was more overt in the past) but the more highly remunerated careers men choseAnd perfect parity in those careers. And average pay equality.  And all the Perfect Woman pressures, as highlighted in a 1976 Harper’s article “Requiem for the Women’s Movement.”

The famous quip from Canadian feminist Charlotte Whitton expresses the mood under which girls born in the ’70s on were raised, “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”

And now, decades later, along come two researchers wondering why:

At HP, and in study after study, the data confirm what we instinctively know. Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in. Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect.

How is this in any way baffling? Unattainable or unsustainable standards merged with glib boasting and pressure for perfection. Voila! A confidence gap was born. It is feminism’s self inflicted wound. (Well, one of them anyway.)

But we don’t like to even ponder the possibility of feminism’s self inflicted wounds. It feels like ingratitude to our mothers. We prefer our illusions about feminism, that it is all about choice and respect—an easy illusion to maintain as long as we don’t look back. (Fiftieth Anniversary readings of The Feminine Mystique make for some interesting reading on how much we know about contemporary feminism.) Reluctant  to confront our past, we keep trying to make the old don-an-air-of-superiority-and-copy-men method work.

We pretend that school success is a reliable path to life success so that we can praise girls for achievements that already come more easily to them—to build their confidence, of course. (I’m already on record pointing out how that might not be the success many think it is.) Scholarly achievement has proven such a captivating illusion that we have re-structured school for girls even to the point of having to drug many of our sons to endure it. We jeopardize men, women, and society’s success to keep up this travesty.

We have men so terrified of being called sexist that they are afraid to give women constructive criticism.

We were curious to find out whether male managers were aware of a confidence gap between male and female employees. And indeed, when we raised the notion with a number of male executives who supervised women, they expressed enormous frustration. They said they believed that a lack of confidence was fundamentally holding back women at their companies, but they had shied away from saying anything, because they were terrified of sounding sexist.

We #banbossy when notable anecdotes and research suggest that name calling builds resistance to confidence killers. Shipman and Kay see but do not understand the connection. Compare two passages:

From kindergarten on, [boys] roughhouse, tease one another, point out one another’s limitations, and call one another morons and slobs. In the process, Dweck contends, such evaluations “lose a lot of their power.” Boys thus make one another more resilient. Other psychologists we spoke with believe that this playground mentality encourages them later, as men, to let other people’s tough remarks slide off their backs.

That is from the Atlantic excerpt. This is from the book:

The young men at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland have a name for female students. They call them DUBs—dumb ugly bitches. Yes. Disgusting. We didn’t quite believe it until we verified it with a number of recent graduates… When women have to deal with abuse like that, it’s little wonder that so many of us struggle with confidence.

They might counter that “DUBs” is much harsher than “morons and slobs,” but then the Naval Academy has to toughen up students to endure far more than boardroom politics. Building up students’ immunity to even harsh name calling seems rather basic training for those we expect to sail into harm’s way.

How does all of this pandering end for young women? In surprise, of the unpleasant kind.

Among the many theories Kay and Shipman offer for the confidence gap (estrogen, brain structure, and some social conditioning), they avoid an odd subject: what mothers tell daughters. (They have a few anecdotal stories about confidence building advice in the book, but don’t discuss the general life advice mothers convey to their daughters.) I’ve seen similar avoidance of obviously relevant facts in other contexts, so I skimmed for the unintended punch line I knew I would find [emphasis mine]:

What a vicious circle: girls lose confidence, so they quit competing, thereby depriving themselves of one of the best ways to regain it. They leave school crammed full of interesting historical facts and elegant Spanish subjunctives, proud of their ability to study hard and get the best grades, and determined to please. But somewhere between the classroom and the cubicle, the rules change, and they don’t realize it. They slam into a work world that doesn’t reward them for perfect spelling and exquisite manners. The requirements for adult success are different, and their confidence takes a beating.

The rules change? On their own? Consistently and therefore predictably between the classroom and the cubicle? That is not a rule change. That is our failure to prepare them for the actual rule.

Frankly, I’m sick of reading about life surprising young women or sex surprising young womenfertility surprising women… I get angry watching them wonder if they are being naive when mostly they are just ill-informed because we, their elders, prefer to ignore anything that casts a shadow over our past. It was one thing when we were lying to ourselves, but now, if we don’t confront all these uncomfortable lessons from our past, we will be lying to our daughters, leaving them slam into realities we were too cowardly to tell them about.

Closing the Confidence Gap

Whether young women repeatedly slam into reality and shatter because our sheltering left them brittle and unprepared or they simply understand that we altered the rules for them and don’t think themselves up to real world tasks, they will have to manufacture their confidence. Which brings us to the real problem of the confidence gap. It is not closable without genuine confidence.

Shipman and Kay basically tell women to think less and do more. Leaving aside their merger of the logical fallacy of the converse with the fallacy of false cause—one cannot infer from the truth that inaction results from a lack of confidence, that action will cure lack of confidence—I can almost hear professional women crying out that they have been doing the work. Following the rules, keeping heads down, working—that’s how we got to this point. Is that the best advice one can offer? Keep going and this time it’ll work?

In the book they go into more depth, recommending some positive thinking tricks, meditation (about what no one ever seems to mention), sleep, an end to helicopter parenting (although they do not say it so directly), and a “fail fast” approach to business, essentially trying most ideas that come to mind to see what sticks. My torts professor called this last idea “shotgun reasoning” and never gave it more than a C because judges would not be so kind about lawyers wasting their time. Plus, all of that risk taking that boys did more than girls back in their playground days probably hones their instincts, giving them an advantage at fail fast tactics. Women trying and falling short, again, will widen the confidence gap. (Although, the fail fast advice might explain the publishing of the book; they are just putting the ideas out there to see what happens.)

Shipman and Kay also advise women to think of work not as personal but for others, to move “From Me to We.”  This one could work. Altruism does boostconfidence. This is old knowledge. In fact, one of the main objections conservative women had about second wave feminism concerned too much focus on the self. Dig down into all of our objections to feminism, and you will find focus on the self at the bottom.

As others discover that the recommended focus on the self hampers women’s advancement, two notes of caution from our voice of experience: 1) Anything but altruism for the sisterhood, that is other professional, feminist women, will likely get you ostracized. Prepare for isolation. 2) As with confidence, altruism cannot be effectively faked. It takes practice and discipline in the face of cultural (and frequently feminist) ’do what is best for you’ pressure to keep self-focus at bay. Tricks like repeating that ‘this one is for the team’ before giving a speech won’t suffice. Actions before, during, and after the speech need to be for the team, too. And sincerity is everything. Faking confidence is frankly much, much easier and less fraught with reputation peril. Get caught faking confidence and people just call you a bitch. Get caught faking altruism, and no one will trust you.

Incidentally, Shipman and Kay might have unknowingly stumbled upon the root of the “bitch” problem. Like most other commentators, they assume that professional women get called bitches for assertive behavior. But considering their point about how most people can easily spot fake confidence and how faking confidence often involves acting assertive, I wonder if the slur is actually thrown at women with fake confidence. Since women fake it more than men, “bitch” is more prevalent than “asshole,” the probable equivalent slur for the unjustified boastful male.

The distilled versions of Shipman and Kay’s solutions: faked confidence, faked altruism, and trial and error plans. These recommendations are more likely to widen the confidence gap than close it.

The Real Solution

Women cannot close the confidence gap without real confidence. To do that we must stop trying to ape men. We keep score, meticulous score, in school, degrees, salaries, promotions, board room positions, chores, parenting, and time. We focus on the men vs. women score rather than our own successes. There are many details in the things we must do, but overall, we must stop scorekeeping, which will be difficult for modern women trained to think in 77-cents-to-a-dollar terms.

Look at The Atlantic cover. “Men have too much” confidence, claimed the subtitle. The article doesn’t support it. The main study cited has men slightly underestimating their actual test scores. Other studies that suggest men simply have more confidence than women appear to be anecdotal surveys by young professors or otherwise un-linkable. The Atlantic used the notion of men with too much confidence as provocative click-bait, I suppose because they figured women are more likely to read the story if it promises a women vs. men theme.  With competition stoking headlines like that, don’t expect the confidence gap to disappear anytime soon.

As long as we continue using men’s standards as The standards, as long as we place numerical equality over compliment between the sexes, the confidence gap will persist. When we can do our work, whatever work it is, without comparing ourselves to men, then we will find out what free women can really achieve.