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Women take on the 'confidence gap'

Why are women perceived negatively when they exhibit confidence?

Last updated: 18 Apr 2014 10:36
Alice Driver

Alice Driver is a writer who explores issues of gender, women's rights, and human rights with a focus on Mexico.
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Women in power, like Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor and Condoleezza Rice, have been criticised for being decisive, writes Drive [AP]

Either we're bossy or we're "bitches", but whichever it is, we can't seem to win. The fact is that women in power take a beating (think Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor, Condoleezza Rice) for being decisive, and that criticism takes the form of everything from analysing the size of our thighs, to discussing our makeup, our child-rearing skills, or, God forbid, our scrunchies.

And then, regardless of how qualified we are for a job, surveys show that if a man and a woman have the same credentials for a job, the man is still judged as more qualified. How confident would men in positions of power feel if they were constantly, over a lifetime, subjected to the same kind of criticism as women about their bodies, their appearance, and the way they raised their children?

This week, The Atlantic published yet another article on one of its favourite topics - advice for women. "The Confidence Gap" by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman analyses why there is a confidence gap between men and women, and posits that women lag behind for several factors that range from the environment to differences in male and female brain development.

Like the advice in Sheryl Sandburg's Lean In, the article identifies the male way of doing things as the standard to live up to, and then gives women advice about how to catch up to the "overconfidence" that gets men so far in life. The unfortunate twist is that when women display confidence in the same ways as men, they are often labelled as "bitches". The authors discuss how: "If a woman walks into her boss's office with unsolicited opinions, speaks up first at meetings, or gives business advice above her pay grade, she risks being disliked or even - let's be blunt - being labelled a "bitch". The more a woman succeeds, the worse the vitriol seems to get. It's not just her competence that's called into question; it's her very character."

Would we feel more confident if we were respected for being outspoken?

What also goes unanalysed is the fact that articles like this assume that men set the standard that women have to reach. Kay and Shipman discuss the role of testosterone and confidence and explain that, "Men have about 10 times more testosterone pumping through their system than women do, and it affects everything from speed to strength to muscle size to competitive instinct. It is thought of as the hormone that encourages a focus on winning and demonstrating power, and for good reason."

Physiologically, women are never going to compete with that level of testosterone, and, it begs the question: Why do we define testosterone-induced competitive overconfidence as the mark that women need to meet? When, I wonder, will The Atlantic publish an article advising men that overconfidence not related to actual skills is an egotistical waste of time?

While Shipman and Kay, like Sandburg, do have good advice for women, they fail to identify the influence of the structural factors that make women less confident. For example, they point out that, "Perfectionism is another confidence killer. Study after study confirms that it is largely a female issue, one that extends through women's entire lives."

However, they don't analyse how perfectionism is demanded from women both by society and by the media, placing expectations on us that are never experienced by men. As feminist superwoman Jessica Valenti commented on Twitter, "Maybe women's lack of confidence is not a personality flaw, but a predictable response to a culture that tells them they are not good enough."

While from personal experience I do think that there is a confidence gap, I also know from experience that even women who are naturally confident face a lifetime of criticism that attempts to break down that confidence. This is what the "bitch" complex does - it leaves you damned if you are confident, and generally hated by women and men alike. As it turns out, women also have a long way to go in supporting other confident women, because we tend to judge confident women as "bitches" too.

Shipman and Kay do have good advice, lessons that I will apply to my life. Confidence is important, and tips to improve it are great. However, the main problem with their argument is that it continues to place the burden of responsibility on women, and it doesn't demand structural changes from society that address the treatment of women.

The authors ask the question: "So what are the implications of all this? The essential chicken-and-egg question still to be answered is to what extent these differences between men and women are inherent, and to what extent they are a result of life experiences."

Some might argue that women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns because they are less confident and negotiate less than men.

However, this argument ignores systemic sexism and structural issues that place women on an unequal playing field professionally. Would we feel more confident if we were respected for being outspoken? If we were rewarded for promoting ourselves like men instead of being judged as egocentric? If our workplace offered affordable childcare? If our bodies were not constantly evaluated in the workplace?

In a society where women are systematically judged as less qualified than men even when they are equally or more qualified, where women are called "bitches" when they speak as much as men, where women, especially women of colour, are paid less than men in every occupation, where rape still inevitably results in a discussion of what a woman was wearing - we need to work on more than confidence.

Alice Driver is a writer who explores issues of gender, women's rights, and human rights with a focus on Mexico. Her writing has been featured in publications such as Ms. Magazine, Women's Media Center, Salon, and Open Democracy, and her photography has appeared in National Geographic. She recently finished a short documentary about photojournalists in Juarez, Mexico. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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