A new book called The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman
says that women are suffering from a lack of confidence and this holds them back in the workplace. In an article in The Atlantic, the authors compare the ability of men to be confident whether or not they are “right,” and their ability to rebound from criticism and failure. Women, on the other hand, are careful, cautious perfectionists who are afraid to speak up in meetings. This, they say, is the reason women are underrepresented in upper levels of management. However, the authors continue, when a woman does display confidence, speaks up, or otherwise acts more like a “man,” she is perceived far less favorably.
The Real Problem is Unconscious Bias
As with many of the gender-related topics we discuss here on the blog, what we are dealing with here is a deep-seated attitude that persists despite all of the advances women have made in the last 60 years. It is far too simplistic to attribute women’s lack of confidence to the discrepancies in the workplace. The evidence they provide is compelling, however, what is the solution? If a woman is left behind if she isn’t confident, but is punished when she is, there does not seem to be a way through. Moreover, it places the onus on the woman to change one more thing about herself in order to succeed. I would argue that the problem isn’t a woman’s confidence or lack thereof. It is an institutional problem and a societal one.
Some believe the best answer to addressing the gender gap is to ignore it. If we simply look at a candidate for their qualifications, for their experience, we should evaluate them on the basis of that and that alone. On the surface, this sounds equitable and responds to criticism that quotas and affirmative action are unfair. However, this philosophy ignores the reality of unconscious bias that still exists today. In unconscious bias, we apply our values and attitudes to decision making processes without realizing it. This is such a broad and societal problem that it will take many steps to overcome it, although companies are beginning to address this issue.
Rather than advising women to be “more like men,” perhaps we should respect the differences between men and women’s professional styles. As much as you need confident extroverts in business, whatever their gender, you also need different managerial styles. Women tend to be more democratic, more cooperative and collaborative, and oriented to enhancing others’ self-worth. In a symposium on “Gender & Work,” Harvard Business School talks about the term “transformational leadership,” a combination of feminine and masculine leadership styles. Transformational leaders are inspirational role models, foster good human relationships, develop the skills of followers, and motivate others to go above and beyond. Women tend, more than men, to be transformational leaders.
Ultimately, the message Kay and Shipman are conveying is true. Women do tend to be less confident than men, and in our culture where confident extroverts are the ideal, this certainly can lead to women being left behind on the career ladder. However, it is one simple aspect of a much more complicated situation. And asking women once again to change themselves, rather than asking society to change, undermines a great deal of the feminist movement.