Female lack of confidence is a big topic of conversation this week in the wake of the publication of Katty Kay's and Claire Shipman's new book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance.
The truth is, while I'm happy for any conversation about gender gaps that need closing, I'm not interested in teaching adult women how to become more confident. We've had decades, even centuries, of confident women. We aren't dealing with status and the fact that men, universally, have more of it. We aren't dealing with how our systems endlessly reproduce this reality, especially when we tell women to adapt to male norms of expression and behavior in order to be successful. I want women to keep the confidence they have as young girls. The confidence we, collectively, crush.
The benchmark for this female loss of confidence is eternal male overconfidence, and that overconfidence has real costs. Why do men assume they are so great? It's not our brain chemistry. It's not a confounding mystery. Men assume they are so great BECAUSE WE KEEP TELLING THEM THEY ARE. We know that overconfidence is an issue and that male disappointment in the face of unrealistic expectations is a big problem. Where are our best-selling books telling men to be a little more humble about their abilities? Or books discussing how widespread tolerance for men's overestimation of their own abilities may be detrimental to them and those around them? Including at school and work?
We've known about this gap for ages. "Something" happens to create it, roughly between the ages of 4 and 14. That "something" will not be significantly offset by individual girls and women pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. That "something" is good old-fashioned sexism expressed in gendered socialization and a default cultural preference for institutionalized male domination of public life. It starts when we are born and is cultivated in homes and in schools, on screens and on fields.
Girls are ceding public space before they even have a chance to engage. We don't call this a girl crisis when, quite clearly, it is. By the time boys and girls leave high school and enter college, boys are twice as likely to say they are prepared to run for office. As teenagers, girls are six times as likely to experience anxiety and depression. Probably because, in addition to a whole host of other things, it's seriously cognitively disjunctive to grow up hearing "girl power" marketing babble and have to terms with quite evident marginalization and historical erasure. The confidence gap is a symptom of a bigger rite of passage for girls: the inflection point when self-objectification and internalized sexism settle into a girl's psyche because, to put it in market terms, cultural capital is so unevenly distributed. That entirely gendered ceding of self is what all this confidence gap closing is about.
If we want adult women to be more confident; to negotiate for a job, equal pay and promotions more effectively; and to become leaders and run for office, her is what we need to do:
- Stop telling girls to be "little ladies" and "good" girls who help with chores, wait their turns, do not display pride, express anger or be demanding as children. Politeness and taking turns, two highly-ranked lessons we teach girls in particular, are not virtues in the public sphere.
- Examine implicit biases and stop interrupting and talking over girls. This is something that parents and teachers do twice as often to girls as to boys. You know what this teaches? That girls' words and thoughts are not as important or valued. The most powerful illustration of the effects of gender on perceptions of importance, competence and speech are the experiences of people who undergo sex changes. In the wake of Larry Summers' "women can't do math" controversy several years ago, scientist Ben Barres wrote publicly about his female-to-male transition experience. After transitioning, he gave a well-received scientific speech and overheard a member of the audience explain that "his work is much better than his sister's," referring to when he was Barbara Barres. Notably, he concluded that one of the major benefits of being male was that he could now "even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man."
- Stop promoting the idea that masculinized expression is superior and that women have to emulate it to be successful. The expectation that women be gender bi-lingual, or code switch, is a function of being part of a muted group. The kind of confidence that many people advocate just means a woman has work very hard to overcome sexist gender incongruities to succeed.
- Nip American male "boys will be boys" entitlements in the bud by holding boys and girls to the same standards of self-regulation as children.
- Understand that our country's early childhood math gap, an indicator of so much else in society and achievement of "success," is larger than others' and that is related not to girl's inability to do math, but to higher male status. I spoke to a boy crisis in education crisis author recently who revealed, despite writing several books, that he was had done no cross-cultural examination of math aptitude.
- Don't be apathetic about challenging schools to teach women's history. Despite girls' higher academic achievements, girls are leaving schools feeling less secure in their abilities. Girls go into our schools with assuredness and ambition, but they don't leave them that way. Boys however, suffer no degradation of confidence in school. All of this takes place in schools contorting themselves over misunderstandings of the boy crisis in education. Boy crisis in education proponents struggle to justify their concerns when they don't seem to correlate with men's higher levels of confidence, pay, political ambition or any number of other metrics that we gauge success by. The erasure of women's past accomplishments and struggles is depriving boys and girls both of the imagination to see women as powerful agents of change. By suppressing this history, we fail to prepare them for citizenship, we actively make them culturally illiterate, we undermine our ability to create an effective workforce that provides equal opportunity and leverages the talents of all people and we fail to grow adults who can think critically. Can you or children you know answer one or two of these six very basic questions pertaining to women's historic work. The "confidence gap" will never close until everyone is equally fluent in this history as they are with our male dominated one.
- Don't tolerate the everyday sexism of male control of religious leadership. This alone would yield seriously positive results for girls and women's confidence. Why wouldn't you reject any notion of God that incorporates the idea that women cannot speak to and for God on equal terms as a man? What kind of ridiculous message is that to send children? There are alternatives everywhere if you want to find them.
- Challenge institutions that employ sexual objectification. Not just the blatant sort in advertising and media, but the insidious kind that is part of conventional thinking. For example, dress codes and purity ideals.
- Make gender awareness and critical media literacy skills a priority in education. Media is a psychic gift to boys, especially, in the U.S., white boys. It's a lifetime legacy to look around and see yourself represented in diverse, multidimensional ways. Wearing clothes.
- Stop focusing on individual women and their choices and spend time on what systemic change has to happen to close this gap. All the confidence in the world will change nothing fundamentally unless we have wholesale cultural will to create institutionalized parity.
The fact that our competence and credibility are questioned is not in our heads. It's in the workplace, in courts, in law enforcement, in doctors' offices, and in our political system. Women, even those with excessive belief in their own abilities, are expected to prove their qualifications and have more of them. We need more qualifications in order to be paid fairly and to succeed. People and institutions demand it. Managers overwhelmingly distrust women who request flextime. People don't trust women to be bosses, or pilots, or employees. In Pakistan, the controversial Hoodooed Ordinance still requires a female rape victim to procure four male witnesses to her rape or risk prosecution for adultery. That may sound extreme and "other," until you think about how our own rape shame trajectories work. When is the last time you saw sad news about a rapist killing himself out of shame? Of course, women are trusted to be mothers, the largest pool of undervalued, economically crucial labor.
Men wake up, look in the mirror and feel perfectly confident talking about virtually anything because they can. That's not a gross oversimplification.
Improving individual female confidence will not address the fact that when boys and men speak we think what they have to say is more important. Boys and men know this because we teach them, and everyone else, that what they do and say is more important. It's so easy to see. A study about gender and online interactions showed that on list serves, topics introduced by men have a much higher rate of response. On Twitter, men are retweeted two times more often than women. There's no shortage of confident women on Twitter.
I may have a great deal of confidence, but that does not mean the same thing as thinking others will as well. Nor does my confidence affect that of the boys and men around me. The amount of times I have been in meetings and had men talk over me, ignore me, interrupt me and repeat what I say as though I'd never uttered a word is genuinely staggering. I've had teenage boys write me to explain my area of expertise to me. Just now, a man I've never met stopped at my table, asked me what I was writing and made what he termed "helpful suggestions." It's why Rebecca Solnit's coining the term "mansplaining" resonated culturally. Every woman in the world has experiences this.
Telling women to operate more like men in the public sphere, change their speech, change their hair, change their clothes and change their style of expression will only amplify androcentric norms. If we want to close the confidence gap, of course it helps to talk to women about self-doubt, but really closing this gap, as with all the others -- pay, safety, rights -- requires structural changes in every institution we live with. That's a matter of collective will that we are still painfully lacking. I predict that feminism will die, well, at least a dozen more times before that happens.