The Confidence Gap. A phrase that assumes a personal lack of conviction or assuredness, used to describe personality flaws of women in business. A catch-all for meek, voiceless women who hold back their opinions and talents because they've never learned to step up and speak up.
And it's all women's fault.
I was recently on a flight, seated next to an older gentleman. As it does, the conversation turned to what we both did for a living. When I told him I spoke on the topics of confidence and resiliency, he asked more about the confidence work. I explained how many of us women have grown up in a society where we have been systematically kept at a disadvantage and it can shape how we view ourselves and move through the world. He laughed and refused to believe that systemic sexism exists.
"I've got two daughters." he said. "I've always told them they can do and become anything. Society doesn't hold women back."
How many times have we, as women, been told the same thing all the while getting messages - both overt and covert - that tell us the opposite and become part of our own belief system?
Let's start with something as basic and unconscious as how we use language:
• When referring to a large group of mixed gender people it's usually referred to as "mankind" or "man". No existence of women. I always address groups of people - even when they are all female - with "Hi guys!".
• Female words being used as an insult: "Don't be a pussy" or "Don't get hysterical". Hysterical comes from hystera or womb. I've also said these. Maybe I'll start telling my daughter "Don't be a scrotum" when I feel like she's not putting in enough effort.
• Many job descriptors end in the word "man": businessman, chairman, policeman, fireman. (As I make a ridiculous list of typically female jobs with the suffix "man" - dentalassistantman, maidman or secretaryman - they still sound like superheroes. Damn it.)
Okay, let's just touch lightly on politics.
• Think about this: before women (or blacks for that matter) had the right to vote, ALL decisions were made by white men, to favor white men. Can you imagine having the power to create an entire system that benefits you in every possible way? Off the bat, I would make it mandatory that someone made me good, healthy food every day, did all my errands and had a gin and tonic waiting for me each night. Oh wait...that's what men already did. Whoops!
• As we've seen in U.S. national politics, when a woman runs for office there is more emphasis on her looks, clothing choice and personality rather than skill and experience.
• Up until the 20th century there was this crazy thing called "coverture". It happened when a woman married a man and they became one person in law. (I can't stop the mental picture of becoming conjoined twins.) This means women DID NOT EXIST in the U.S. from a legal perspective. Women were not legally defined as "persons" until 1875.
As someone who has focused much of their life on health, this is really sickening:
• Gendercide (the practice of killing a certain sex - guess which one!) still happens in many countries...think China and India where having a male heir is more desirable.
• Honor killings. When a man decides a woman has shamed the family in some way, he gets to kill her. It can be for something as small as "dressing inappropriately".
• Reproductive rights. This includes a lot of things, but I'll just leave this thought here: You can practically get Viagra out of a gum ball machine AND it's been covered by insurance from the get-go, while women have to get a prescription for birth control pills and it wasn't until 2012 that most (not all) insurance carriers had to cover it without an additional copay.
When it comes to education...
• In the past we've had far less access to higher education. But that's changed - yay! As women we now earn more undergraduate, graduate and PhDs than men. But there's a big old boo/hiss! We're still making less money and are in fewer leadership positions.
• There's been a gender-math/science stereotype. Millions of us have been nudged into less scientific or math-related degrees. I suck at math, but it's because I continually cheated off Kelly Kennedy's paper in high school. (Sorry to just throw you under the bus, Kelly.)
And we might as well throw pornography into the mix!
• Women are typically portrayed in submissive roles and dehumanized as objects who enjoy humiliation or pain or slapping or spanking or raping or incest or all the other weird crap I've seen. Whoops. I just gave myself away.
• But here's the upside: there's a pay gap that finally favors women! Women in pornography for the win! (You better know I'm being completely facetious.)
I haven't listed anything to do with the pay gap, the glass ceiling or how media, advertising and the fashion industry keep women questioning their worth.
We are products of our environments and personalities. The Confidence Gap does not just refer to a personality flaw, it's also a reflection of a flawed system. A system that pushes us forward by telling women (and all minorities for that matter) that "we can do and become anything" while simultaneously holding us back. And all of it makes us question our talent, ability and skill. Not to mention it's exhausting.
The next time someone uses the phrase "you can do and become anything", I'm going to confidently step up, speak up and say that's a bunch of crap. Will you?