The Shriver Report – Stop Telling Women a Lack of Confidence Is What’s Holding Them Back

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Stop Telling Women a Lack of Confidence Is What’s Holding Them Back

© Sergey Nivens –

There’s a media storm going on about whether women are limited by sexism in our culture or by our own failure to push ourselves forward enough, hindered by self-doubt and persistent feelings of insecurity.

It all started when journalists Katty Kay (no, I didn’t misspell it) and Claire Shipman released their follow-up tome to Womenonmics, the just-off-the-presses The Confidence Code.  As they write in this Atlantic feature: “Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels.”

If we only behaved with the same self-assurance that men have, we wouldn’t be derailed by motherhood, nor stymied by discrimination in the workplace.  Our lack of confidence, they argue, is a devastating crisis, undermining women’s empowerment all over the country.

That article unleashed a stream of other articles.  Former Feministing writer Jessica Valenti, now at The Guardian, pulls no punches in The Female ‘Confidence Gap’ is a Sham.  “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.”

She points to women’s higher poverty rates, the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault (particularly on college campuses) and gender-specific toy aisles as evidence.  Confronted with entrenched sexism, Valenti takes exception to being told the problem is within women themselves, and suggest deconstructing institutions that favor men instead.

Time magazine responds with an article which points to women’s perfectionist tendencies and how they hold us back.  This may be a bit of a stretch – all women aren’t perfectionists.  It has been noted, however, that men will put themselves forward for a position when possessing only 50% of the criteria.  Women generally don’t, unless they feel they satisfy 100% of the criteria. Men tend to overestimate their ability, while women tend to underestimate their own.

A friend of mine who owns a very successful law firm told me recently that the male attorneys she employs would often sit in her office and say “I was AMAZING in court today!”  However, not once had one of the female lawyers made the same observation.   Awareness may be the first step towards progress, according to Time.  “But perhaps the most useful aspect of all of this talk about confidence is recognizing that it’s a problem at all. Knowing that it’s there, that it’s backed by science, that it’s not just you – and then trying to correct for it.”

I suspect a complete answer includes both individual behaviors and culturally embedded sexism.  It’s the business of public policy to make sure our public interactions are fair and provide equal opportunity.  A particular woman’s degree of confidence in a specific situation is surely deserving of thought and attention, by that woman.  Whether our workplaces and shared values, as reflected in our laws and institutions, tell women they are not suitable for,  or cannot successfully compete in, certain kinds of activity deserves attention from all of us.  In that light, I’m particularly glad to see this Policy Mic piece, “It’s Not the ‘Confidence Gap’ – Here’s What’s Really Holding Women Back”:

Mothers can be confident all they want, but if they are systematically discriminated against, a self-esteem boost won’t get them very far. Why aren’t we talking about the fact that having children boosts a man’s salary (the daddy bonus) while it decreases a woman’s income (the motherhood tax)? 

The article then goes on to advocate the benefits to all of  paid maternity leave, increasing the minimum wage, encouraging fathers to actually use paid paternity leave, and valuing women’s leadership, strength, and power while acknowledging that it may look fundamentally different than men’s leadership, strength and power.

I resent Kay and Shipman’s message that women undermine themselves by their own behavior – obviously that behavior is borne of the culture and societal norms of our day, informed by our history.  It all sounds like Sheryl Sandberg’s exhortations to Lean In: try harder, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and so forth.  Mothers already work incredibly hard.  We need to disconnect the link between motherhood and economic insecurity.  That’s done by access to affordable child-care, flexible workplaces, and paid leave programs that allow all caregivers – men, women, parents, spouses, whatever – to keep the money coming in and effectively deal with family needs simultaneously.

Telling a mother that she’s lacking in confidence or not trying hard enough just makes me mad.  Tell her the truth – the deck is stacked against her, but she, and other concerned and committed people, can change that.

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Valerie Young is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Valerie Young represents the National Association of Mothers' Centers (NAMC) and its netroots public policy MOTHERS Initiative in Washington, D.C. She is an advocate for recognition of mothers’ contributions to our national welfare and a proponent of economic security and independence for those who care for family members. Trained as an attorney, Valerie analyzes state and national legislative action through the lens of motherhood, educating policy makers and others who work on issues pertinent to women. Valerie advises on developments in the political arena, demystifying the political process and encouraging the personal activism of mothers and other family caregivers.
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