In the language of gender inequality, we moved rather quickly from banning “bossy” to blaming a gendered “Confidence Gap” for the disparity between men and women in jobs, pay, and treatment in general. While I can respect the need to pinpoint how we change this grand societal flaw, I find myself still peeved by the overarching sense that the problem is a) based on female shortcomings and b) easily solved by doing this one thing, whatever that may be.
I tend to agree with Jessica Valenti that the female “confidence gap” is a sham. It hearkens back to Jimmy Carter’s fateful speech where he told the American people that we were doing poorly due to a crisis of… you guessed it: Confidence! As Valenti posits, this lack of confidence is more likely an understanding of how society views women, not necessarily how women view themselves. What’s more, this “confidence” problem is NOT just a U.S. problem, nor is it just a female problem.
Recently, a female Turkish acquaintance became flustered in one of our graduate classes. She could not understand why political scientists keep using formal mathematical models instead of explaining everything in words. “The math just makes things too complicated!” she exclaimed. Yet, every time she talks about the content of one of these articles, she seems to have understood the models perfectly. Why would this intelligent woman continue to discount her understanding of math because it seems “too complicated”?
And the issue of confidence extends to many men, as well! Think of all the plotlines involving young nerds who stop short of asking a pretty girl on a date for fear of rejection. Think of what the world might have lost if Steve Jobs hadn’t talked Steve Wozniak into leaving Hewlett-Packard!
But the fact that the confidence gap is a universal problem is really only the surface of the issue. Buried beneath this mask is a larger set of societal flaws. Instead of looking for the simple answer to “Why are women paid less than men?” we should be looking for the root problem of these greater questions:
1. What’s wrong with being a woman?
Like men, women come in all shapes, sizes, and attitudes! Some women are more direct, others more persuasive. Some place politeness as a top priority, while others focus on practicality and efficiency. However, none of these attributes or actions are either static or mutually exclusive. That’s right! Women, like men, change their minds and use varying methods to interact with others. Do any of these personalities make a woman any less feminine? No. Does a particular personality make her better suited for some places of employment over others? Yes!
That is not to say the double standard of treatment is to be ignored. Instead, I suggest a greater understanding of what it means to be a woman. Because when you really think about it, being a woman is just a subset of being human. Rather than focusing on whether we treat women with different personalities differently, perhaps it’s time to realize that women come in more than one box. And that’s actually preferable!
2. When will we stop telling ourselves that certain skills are better than others?
There seems to be this idea going around that women should either “Lean In” and play hardball or instead hold strong to the notion of traditional femininity. My personal response is, “Why not both?” I adore sun dresses and international politics alike; why should I choose just one?
But under the surface of this perceived dichotomy lies a much greater demon: this idea that one skill set is greater than another. The recent push from STEM to STEAM is a small but great step in American education toward recognizing that each skill has its place in the world. Yes, we need engineers. Yes, women make fantastic politicians. But why can she not also be a fantastic mechanic? Why can’t her brother be an excellent customer service representative?
We each have predilections toward certain skills, and each skill is useful somewhere! We should embrace these predilections and highlight the importance of finding a place in this world to use our skills toward something productive. After all, there are no small parts – only small actors.
3. When will we start to find and hone the skills we want?
Again, we all have skills we are drawn to, and we all have skills that seem to come easily. Yet this does NOT mean the skills that come easily have to be the skills we are drawn to. In fact, some people are more inspired by the things that challenge them!
A good friend of mine is a brilliant animator who always scoffs when people praise his “talent.” He tells them, “Talent is just another word for a skill that someone has worked hard for!” Most professional artists will tell you that they do work hard at their “talent.” And why not? We expect that doctors work hard for their skills in medical knowledge and patient care. Why should visual art or mathematics be any different?
Instead, we now understand that being a “math person” is a myth. It has far more to do with being prepared early for math learning. Similarly, most skills are something which can be picked up and honed, especially from an early age.
Pulling off the mask, exposing the truth within
In all, I find it frustrating that this so-called “confidence gap” should be blamed for such deeply-rooted societal misconceptions about each person’s place in the world. I find it appalling that women should be pointed out as its primary victims! Confidence in self is a glaring problem for much of American society, and it can largely be attributed to this long-past ideal of the American Dream where everyone must fit into pre-designed roles in order to be happy.
Instead, I find a call for universal confidence in one’s self and in one’s personal, significant place in the world a far more appealing solution.