Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Confident Enough to Call It Sexism

If you think the wage gap is caused by discrimination, you're probably skeptical of Katty Kay and Claire Shipman's confidence gap.

For those well-versed in sociology, there are plenty of reasons to question their theory concerning gender and confidence. But sadly, the pair was still able to fill D.C.'s Sixth&I Historic Synagogue with women ready to confront the biological forces supposedly blocking their road to success.

After devouring Kay and Shipman’s cover story for the Atlantic, and ignoring warnings the “confidence gap” was merely an attempt to sell yet another self-help manual, predictable proteges showed up hungry for more.

The journalists were met with eager nods from millennials who had migrated to the nation's capital for gainful employment. But as these recent graduates started navigating the real world, they discovered something college didn't prepare them for-- inequality.

Reaping the benefits of legislation like Title IX, many of these budding professionals were encountering actual adversity for the first time. 

However, in a seemingly post-feminist world where no one's opportunities are restricted on the basis of sex, getting passed over for a promotion feels like an isolated incident. And by subscribing to the confidence gap, each incident will remain isolated-- even though attendants found themselves surrounded by women having similar experiences.

So rather than start this century's largest consciousness-raising group, these women turned inward, missing their chance understand that the personal is still political.     

Kay, lead anchor of BBC World News America, and Shipman, senior national correspondent for Good Morning America, brought anecdotes from their research and copies of their new book The Confidence Code:  The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know.

Many critics had already accused Kay and Shipman of offering fake solutions to women's real problems, while ignoring the complexities of sex, race, and class. But beyond the absence of intersetionality, an additional faux pas ran throughout their one-dimensional exploration of gender discrepancy in the workplace.

Instead of identifying sexism where it obviously exists, Kay and Shipman’s confidence gap fiercely defended the status quo.

Besides the “cultural and institutional barriers” they half-heartedly acknowledged, Kay and Shipman found “explanations for a continued failure to break the glass ceiling are missing something more basic: women’s acute lack of confidence.” 

Exhibiting an unmistakable preference for nature over nurture, they framed behavior aligning with gender stereotypes as simply inherent. And after a month of unflattering reviews, they remained unfazed.

“I don’t think we avoided sexism intentionally,” said Shipman at Sixth&I. “[We] meant to really dig into whatever confidence is and where comes from.”

But their conclusion put the cart before the horse. Instead of women’s lower social status fostering lower levels of confidence, Kay and Shipman believe women’s naturally lower confidence determines their lower social status—at least at work.

The fault apparently lies with women and their timid disposition, because “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.”

Previous attempts to understand women’s challenges in the office were over-thinking it. Women come up short because success “correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels.”

Try applying that logic to the statistics describing women’s reality. There are only 23 women CEOs running Fortune 500 companies— because of insecurity?

Kay and Shipman are not the only ones invested in the confidence gap. They spoke with several male executives who explained “a lack of confidence was fundamentally holding back women at their companies.” More importantly, these men “had shied away from saying anything, because they were terrified of sounding sexist.” For these men, women talking too little was a big problem:
One male senior partner at a law firm told us the story of a young female associate who was excellent in every respect, except that she didn’t speak up in client meetings. His takeaway was that she wasn’t confident enough to handle the client’s account. But he didn’t know how to raise the issue without causing offense.
However, if this problem truly stems from lacking confidence, consider the alternative. In an experiment conducted at the Yale School of Management, men and women rated a fictitious female CEO who talked frequently:
The result: both sexes viewed this woman as significantly less competent and less suited to leadership than a male CEO who talked for the same amount of time. When the female CEO was described as talking less than others, her perceived competency shot up.
So if women who spoke too much were viewed as incapable, but women who spoke too little were also seen as incapable, what is the proper amount a woman should be speaking to convince others she is qualified?

The only constant is that the woman, in both examples, is a woman. Their "errors" are merely rationalizations for societal feelings towards women in charge. And justifying that prejudice with excuses about women’s confidence, or competence, is sexist.

Most troubling is that confidence isn’t even really the answer. Kay and Shipman admit women can be confident—and still get screwed.
Yes, women suffer consequences for their lack of confidence—but when they do behave assertively, they may suffer a whole other set of consequences, ones that men don’t typically experience.
There are consequences no matter what. So is this sexism yet?
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 labeled a bitch.
Despite a clear understanding of the inconsistent ways people interpret women’s confidence, Kay and Shipman still prescribe having more of it. But given the contradictory research they used, the only thing Kay and Shipman managed to prove is that the rules are always different for women.

Shipman agrees there is “no question” that sexism is an issue. “It’s there. And we really felt we were addressing that. But at the same time, we didn’t want that to be the subject of the book.”

But how can you address sexism without ever using the word sexism?

Even though the language was absent, Shipman believes they effectively tackled sexist attitudes in their book, the Confidence Code. “We weren’t pussyfooting around when we called one chapter dumb ugly bitches,” she said, referencing a nickname for female students at the US Naval Academy. 
The cruel nickname stuck with Kay as well, who confessed she found it “more shocking than the current brand of sexism.” 

But no matter what Kay and Shipman title their chapters, the confidence gap is a symptom of inequality—not an explanation. And that’s where the conversation should begin. They owe it to the women following their “code” here in Washington, and everywhere else, to let them know what they are really up against. Given how well their book has been received, shouldn't they be confident enough to call it sexism by now? 


  1. Your succinctly stated assertion is accurate. Frankly, I am saddened this book was penned by women of this stature. The content you've presented makes them sound like apologists for the patriarchal movement. (If it walks like a duck...) Thanks for calling them on their drivel.

  2. Sad, but not really surprising that DC women would find solace in this type of propaganda. This city runs on patriarchal BS, so of course DC women from staffers to startups would go for this kind of thing. It's almost as if their professional male counterparts got them free tickets or something, lol.
    Kay & Shipman basically allude that being called a bitch is the worst way to be attacked on the job (*ahem* it isn't...bitches get things done!) and then they actually call women bitches in a chapter title for shock value. This embodies a kind of hypocrisy that allows men to call us bitches in a demeaning way. This by itself was just another small indicator for me that these ladies are up to no good. Thanks for pointing out their inconsistencies with your totally on-point analysis!

  3. I am a little torn on this one. If Kay and Shipman were trying to explain the wage gap in its entirety, then yes, they missed the mark by completely disregarding sexism as a primary factor. However, I think there is something to be said for the psychology of women--in this case, a lack of "confidence." I do not necessarily think this is an argument for nature over nurture. I think that women do suffer in areas of confidence and assertiveness, but this has more to do with nurture than nature; we are conditioned to believe we will not/should not achieve. I think that this explanation for the "confidence gap" is the real piece that went askew in Kay & Shipman's research. They chose something real, but failed to understand the big picture behind the phenomenon.

  4. I think you bring up some great points here. I can't help but directly correlate this to Jill Abramson. Clearly her confidence was not in question because she was running the Times with an iron fist. And that's exactly what got her fired. She didn't shrink back, she acted as any many would act in that position.

    What happened? The CEO thought she was creating a hostile environment. So he fired her. Sounds like she should have had more confidence.

    Let's point out that behavior of the new editor who has publicly admitted to punching holes in his office walls after being angry at decisions from the top executives. Sounds like his behavior isn't a worry at all. Furthermore, the new editor is a man of color, first one in Times history. Could you imagine if they tried to play this same game with him? We would automatically see the race issue at play.

    I bring this up not to say that one is any less or more important, but we will call out racist acts any time, but sexist acts? Those aren't real, it's just their lack of confidence telling them it's sexism. Which then serves to further perpetuate that cycle of oppression.

  5. "It's brains wot did it!" ---famous rich white person proverb

    What a condescending way to sell mentorship without giving people anything to act on. You do a great job of showing how Kay & Shipman come from and pitch to a particular political bubble but it really is a symptom of a larger conflict where 'brains' become a convenient excuse to avoid talking about social relationships and the 'the personal is political' tact gets perverted to the degree that personality problems are the limit of any possible politics. We shouldn't expect Kay & Shipman to talk about burning down the patriarchy, but we should expect them, as industry veterans, to talk about how organizations work and change over time. This catches young women in such a trap too, like you say with the 'bitch' comments: Act like a woman and you're ignored, act like a man and you're rejected. Reminds me of psychologist Claude Steele's 'stereotype threat' research: When people are reminded of their social location, they feel pressured by social institutions to remain there (i.e., young black men do better on SATs when they're not required to fill in their race. Young women get these constant verbal and nonverbal cues that they're supposed to act in a specific way and they think they'll please people by acting that way and then succeed. But for Kay&Shipman, who are immensely talented and probably worked their asses off to get where they are, and a whole bunch of other rich white people, the problem with these social cues is how people respond to them, not the environment they come from. We can and should do better.