The Atlantic magazine ran a cover story on its May issue about the Confidence Gap between professional men and women. Written by international news anchors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, the article is a synopsis of their new book that posits that professional women don’t believe in themselves enough and men believe in themselves too much.
The authors use myriad study results to defend their argument, like how men are more likely than women to apply to jobs even if they are underqualified. Women also think they deserve less for their work financially, etc. etc. The article asks women to “lean in,” if you will let me repurpose a more recent call to action for professional women, to their confidence; it asks women to empower themselves and look at how they act without confidence and fix it.
There’s been a bit of a backlash to this Confidence Gap theory. Great essays by feminist thinkers Jessica Valenti and Tracy Moore point out that the sort of Bootstrap Feminism Kay and Shipman are encouraging puts too much responsibility for fixing it in the hands of women and not in the society that creates such a gap. Even revered broadcast journalist Christiane Amanpour called the Confidence Gap “BS.”
Both sides’ arguments make interesting points about this complicated issue, certainly, but they both also highlight the ways dogmatic feminist principles do an injustice to all of us. In our attempts to stop the pain we suffer from inequality, we feminists often over swing. In our attempts to defend ourselves, we resist too much.
On one side we have the Confidence Gap ideologists. I completely agree that there is a difference between the way men and women see themselves in society and men are often more confident in what they deserve from it, but to say men “have too much confidence” and need to change is problematic. More on why soon.
On the other side, feminist response that the whole idea of a Confidence Gap is sexist and stems from sexist roots—“You fix it! We shouldn’t have to!” I seem to hear from this—takes away too much personal responsibility from the way women live their lives. And disgust with dogmatic groups taking away my personal responsibility is the whole reason I became a feminist in the first place.
I love the trait of self assuredness. And I think women crave it, hence why Beyonce’s “Flawless. I woke up like ‘dis” has been such a radical statement this past year. Some women certainly encourage men to act overconfident. I do. Sometimes it’s pure biology; confidence is sexy as hell. There’s a reason we love “bad” boys. Their sense of security is empowering to be around, especially when we rarely feel a sense of non-apologetic self confidence from other women. But man, when that confidence—or worse, when it’s false confidence—gets turned on you it can certainly burn (I also have had trouble in my past deciphering between confidence and emotional abuse… the attraction is certainly a catch 22… but I think it’s a dynamic other facets of feminism are working to change).
Male bravado is, mostly, beautiful to me. And not just in males, I think it’s beautiful in females too, I just rarely see it in them. But “bitchy” (direct and honest are better words for them) girls have always been my best friends. Male bravado is practically campy at this point in popular culture. We tongue and cheek being bros and digging man stuff like pomade and catching salmon with burly bare hands. That we’ve gotten to this point is awesome in some respects but also kind of sad. Be who you want to be boys, just respect me while you do it.
I do think creating a personal identity and being proud of it is more difficult for girls and women—we have a lot more bullshit coming at us; for examples of how read any feminist text. But building a sense of self is hard for men to do, too. I hate how simplistic these feminist arguments in response to the Confidence Gap can get. Blasting men for being overconfident and arguing that perhaps men should try being a little more like us, we deny the positive things that can come from fearlessness, a decidedly masculine trait because of social conditioning. We also push men away from taking our side into account because we’ve just dismissed a trait that comes naturally—biologically and socially—to them at the same time we are encouraging women to embrace that thing we just degraded in them. Ladies, if anyone knows about confusing mixed messages it’s us, so let’s try to stop dishing them out too.
This dismissal also denies men the dynamic humanity that they perhaps are not actually confident, too. Hubristic tendencies are usually a clear indication of insecurity. In terms of career it just happens to work in their favor. So perhaps we could talk about where these differences come from without insulting them while we do it. Why are they so “overconfident”? Do they feel they have outlets to express their insecurities? How could our society be better for everyone if they did? How are we stereotyping by calling all men overconfident? How can we change that socially at the root in addition to changing how we address young girls? What kind of standards have we set in place and encourage socially about masculinity and what it means to be a man that they act so frustratingly sure of themselves in everything? I don’t think that confidence of men comes just from us accommodating, loving ladies telling them how great they are. I think part of it’s a survival mechanism and part of it is a natural thing that we can encourage women and girls to have more of—and it’s not problematic to feminism to ask that of ourselves.
On that note, I do think this Confidence Gap is real (because I see it in myself, damn) and it does come from sexist roots, roots that we can and should continue trying to pull up like weeds, but it’s silly to just dismiss these journalists’ book and findings because you don’t think it addresses those sexist roots enough and instead blames women. I get why this happens, but I think feminism creates an excuse for ourselves sometimes; we can tough love ourselves. We can demand better from ourselves and still demand better from society.
It’s possible to be a good person and demand a higher salary and apply for a job you’re underqualified for. I don’t think we need to belittle men for having that confidence and I don’t think we should stop fighting for equality professionally or personally just because there are so many outside circumstances contributing to female lack of confidence. We can learn from each other. It’s possible.
The most interesting articles in regards to this subject are the ones that offer suggestions on how to pull up the sexist roots that create this difference in adult men and women, like looking at how we talk to little girls or approach them in the classroom. I think we can bootstrap professionally without self-degradation too.
For example, it’s awards season for journalists; as I’m applying to contests I notice that there are several categories for feature writing, such as arts reporting, sports journalism and even rock and roll feature writing. But there’s nothing for fashion, beauty of lifestyle reporting. Why not? These subjects are obviously not taken seriously by professional journalism contests, even though I would argue that sports and fashion journalism are of the same leisurely ilk. So here. Even though I am not a style or fashion journalist, I do see how these subjects are important to readers who are majority women and I could encourage these contests to include categories for these topics. We can encourage that ourselves and our sisters be taken seriously professionally beyond just demanding equal pay and believing we actually deserved that promotion.
The kind of feminism I ascribe to, the kind of feminism I want to believe in, encourages and embraces equality. It also finds fault in and forgiveness for all people so we can simultaneously make men’s lives better as we do women’s. I have a confidence gap in feminism I’m afraid.