We were about due for a "lean-in," "can-women-have-it-all" level treatise on workplace equality -- and boy did we get it.
The May edition of The Atlantic features a lengthy article by two well-known journalists suggesting we may be able to attribute gender inequality to women's crises of confidence. Loaded with statistics that dizzy more than depress, "The Confidence Gap" explains that women are great at everything but knowing how great they are at everything.
Written by ABC News reporter Claire Shipman and BBC World News America's Katty Kay, the piece is incredibly ambitious. It arrives to us a week after "Equal Pay Day," when we recognize the extra hours women must work to catch up to men's median income. Many question the accuracy of the "77 percent" figure, only to be met by a chorus of men and women reminding them of the qualitative factors that inhibit women's success. (See: disproportionate responsibility for childcare and implicit gender bias in high-earning fields.)
Certainly, it is reasonable to count a so-called "confidence gap" among those factors. "Even as our understanding of confidence expanded... we found that our original suspicion was dead-on: there is a particular crisis for women -- a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes," Kay and Shipman write. "Compared with men, women don't consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they'll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology."
The authors are correct to identify what contributes to the confidence gap, they simply overstate the remedial effect of closing it. I can have the swagger of Don Draper, but if I'm a middle class woman with kids and a salary lower than annual childcare costs, I'm going to leave the workforce and come back to men who have edged ahead and think I'm a bitch for speaking my mind.
Kay and Shipman serve us well to show that confidence interacts with perfectionism to paralyze women's ambitions. If our goal is perfection -- to which we will certainly fall short -- and falling short of our goal diminishes confidence, then yes, women who are perfectionists will almost always experience a crisis of confidence. Men think "that was a bad situation," while women think "I was bad in that situation" -- and allowing ourselves to just move on from mistakes, as men do, is a useful professional enterprise.
But it's not the silver bullet that will shatter the glass ceiling.
By focusing so heavily on "the confidence gap," Kay and Shipman ignore the structural and institutional barriers to women's success. Women may be more reluctant to negotiate pay, but they are also more likely to face professional penalties if they decide to have children and takedisproportionate responsibility for childcare as working moms -- to say nothing of outright gender discrimination.
The reality is that even women who have lept across the "confidence gap" into upper-level management are not always regarded as highly as their male counterparts. How do we know that projecting confidence will pay off for us professionally? And do we really want to create a work culture where women are told that to succeed they must emulate the business strategies of powerful men?
"The Confidence Gap" doesn't make the answer to either of those questions very clear. Every few paragraphs, the authors confront anticipated challenges to their argument. No, we shouldn't necessarily encourage women to overestimate their talents, but look what happens when men do it! Yes, to reduce the confidence gap to biological traits would be a troubling exercise in gender essentialism, but hormones are real! Oy.
Kay and Shipman introduce considerable data suggesting that men are more confident than women, and while that confidence does not always match their skill level, it often performs the same function as actual competence. Where a man and a woman are equally competent, an excessively confident man has an edge over an excessively modest woman. "Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence," they write.
Great. Not only do we have to close the confidence "gap," but we should probably overshoot it.
There is value in bucking up, of course. But the the confidence gap argument is also a useful scapegoat for male managers who claim that they simply can't find qualified female candidates for upper-level positions. Such managers expressed "enormous frustration" with women's lack of confidence, but feared encouraging them would come off as "sexist" in the Atlantic piece. But we cannot treat a lack of confidence as an involuntary affliction to be tiptoed around, or as an irrational response women just need to get over already.
Especially when confidence is not just a prerequisite for a job, but a requirement of the job itself. That "confident women in the workplace still get called bitches," as Jessica Valenti tweeted, is a grim reality we can't misattribute to a "confidence gap." For women to project confidence in the workplace as men do can be a risk itself -- at least where likeability and respect are concerned.
Can we really keep demanding that women expose themselves to risks that might exacerbate the confidence gap in the interest of closing it? In a matter of paragraphs, the authors shift from an anecdote of an overly presumptuous male associate rising above a more modest female peer to a Yale study showing women CEOs are perceived as less competent when they offer "too many" opinions in meetings. When women talked less, both sexes considered them more competent.
Men suffer no such consequences to their expressions of confidence. However, the authors seem to dismiss this fundamental issue as a bridge we'll cross once enough women are confident enough to be considered incompetent. Dream big, ladies.
"Confidence is a belief in one's ability to succeed, a belief that stimulates action. In turn, taking action bolsters one's belief in one's ability to succeed," Kay and Shipman write. Unfortunately, women are not always the gatekeepers of their own success. It's not always up to us how our confidence is perceived.
Once women believe that their actions will indeed lead to positive outcomes, we can chip away at the gap. But that won't happen without making room for the "bitchy" and "bossy" women such expressions of confidence will surely create in the eyes of many workers, and tackling larger institutional barriers.
To misattribute workplace inequality to women's inherent lack of confidence is to ignore a very simple, widely recognized fact: sexism exists. We may never narrow the confidence gap, but a few of us will have to leap to the other side and make conditions more favorable for the rest.
Piece of cake.