Work, we're doing it wrong: Women are doubting themselves on an epic scale.
It's called the "tiara" syndrome. The belief many women have which holds that if they work hard and produce quality work, their efforts will be noticed and appreciated by the boss (prince) which in turn will lead to promotions and higher salaries resulting in their living happily ever after. This belief that quality work, by itself, should result in high praise and rewards based on merit alone isn't a bad belief to have, it's just incredibly, depressingly, wrong, and according to Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, the authors of Womenomics, it's contributing to the wage gap and the stubborn stagnation of efforts to place more women in executive-level positions.
They're calling it "The Confidence Gap," named after the phenomenon that is high-achieving women and their baffling self-doubt about whether they actually deserve the success they've earned.
In two decades of covering American politics as journalists, we realized, we have between us interviewed some of the most influential women in the nation. In our jobs and lives, we walk among people you assume would brim with confidence. And yet our experience suggests that the power centers of this nation are zones of female self-doubt - that is, when they include women at all....
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...A growing body of evidence shows how devastating this lack of confidence can be. Success, it turns out, 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.
Nature or Nurture?
So where does this crippling lack of confidence come from? The authors tackle this question from both a nature and nurture perspective. On the nurture side, they cite three "formative places: the elementary-school classroom, the playground, and the sports field."
School is where many girls are first rewarded for being good, instead of energetic, rambunctious, or even pushy. But while being a "good girl" may pay off in the classroom, it doesn't prepare us very well for the real world....[Girls] learn that they are most valuable, and most in favor, when they do things the right way: neatly and quietly...They get a lot of praise for being perfect. In turn, they begin to crave the approval they get for being good.
This early socialization of little girls to essentially sit quietly and behave while the adults try to herd the little boys into the room is to the little girls' detriment, Kay and Shipman argue, because this desire to garner praise for being "perfect" discourages little girls from taking risks and making mistakes; All things that psychologists now believe are essential to building confidence. The little boys, however, "tend to absorb more scoldings and punishment, and in the process, they learn to take failure in stride." In fact, one study found that little boys in a grade school classroom "got eight times more criticism than girls for their conduct." Eight times.
In addition to brushing off scoldings in the classroom, boys learn to brush off each other on the playground. It turns out all that smack talk next to the jungle gym and the tether ball (do playgrounds still have tether balls?) causes such derogation to lose its power. The same can be said of organized sports.
Other psychologists we spoke with believe that this playground mentality encourages them later, as men, to let other people's tough remarks slide off their backs. Similarly, on the sports field, they learn not only to relish wins but also to flick off losses.
Despite the progress made with the passage of Title IX, "girls are six times as likely to drop off sports teams, with the steepest decline in participation coming during adolescence. This is probably because girls suffer a larger decrease in self-esteem during that time than do boys."
To summarize: we socialize girls to be quiet and sit still from a very early age while letting "boys be boys" at the same time. As a result of this generally one-sided freedom afforded to little boys, they are harder to deal with once they enter structured settings like a classroom. This results in little girls being heavily praised for being "good" which in turn results in an internalized desire for perfection.
They leave school crammed full of interesting historical facts and elegant Spanish subjunctives, proud of their ability to study hard and get the best grades, and determined to please.
But somewhere between the classroom and the cubicle, the rules change, and they don't realize it. They slam into a work world that doesn't reward them for perfect spelling and exquisite manners. The requirements for adult success are different, and their confidence takes a beating.
On the nature side, in addition to the traits associated with estrogen and testosterone levels, new research suggests that "brain structure could figure into variations between the way men and women respond to challenging or threatening circumstances." The amygdala, for example, appears to activate in response to negative emotional stimuli more easily in women than in men.
[This suggests] that women are more likely than men to form strong emotional memories of negative events. This difference seems to provide a physical basis for a tendency that's been observed in behavioral studies: compared with men, women are more apt to ruminate over what's gone wrong in the past.
In addition, the anterior cingulate cortex, also known as the "worrywart center," is larger in women than it is in men.
This little part of the brain helps us recognize errors and weigh options....In evolutionary terms, there are undoubtedly benefits to differences like these: women seem to be superbly equipped to scan the horizon for threats. Yet such qualities are a mixed blessing today.
The Catch-22 of Female Confidence
Here's the rub: We tell women to be more confident. To speak up in meetings. To "lean in", etc. BUT "when they do behave assertively, they may suffer a whole other set of consequences, ones that men don't typically experience."
Attitudes towards women are changing, and for the better, but a host of troubling research shows that they can still pay a heavier social and even professional penalty than men do for acting in a way that's seen as aggressive. 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.
The more a woman succeeds, the worse the vitriol seems to get. It's not just her competence that's called into question; it's her very character. (emphasis added)
Ding ding ding!
The authors end on a hopeful note citing new scientific research suggesting that our brains can literally change in response to our environment (such as the decrease in a father's testosterone levels when he is with his children).
Almost daily, new evidence emerges of just how much our brains can change over the course of our lives, in response to shifting thought patterns and behavior. If we keep at it, if we channel our talent for hard work, we can make our brains more confidence-prone. What the neuroscientists calls plasticity, we call hope.
Women aren't the only ones who need to retrain their brains.
I don't disagree with the findings or the facts in this piece. In fact, I found it riveting. My only complaint after having read through it a few times is this: it still puts 100% of the responsibility to change things on women, by retraining our brains to be confident in the hopes that this new-found confidence will result in higher wages and more women in the C-Suite. If only women "keep at it" and "channel our talent for hard work".
But this line of reasoning sounds eerily similarly to the tiara syndrome mentioned above. What about the rest of society? No amount of brain plasticity will make a difference if women are still socially penalized for being confident. As the authors noted, study after study has proven that the social rewards for confidence as applied to men simply do not transfer to women.
This doesn't mean that I don't think women should try to retrain their brains to recognize and be confident in their accomplishments and abilities, because I do. But in order for things to truly change, those on the receiving end of female confidence need to re-train their brains to appreciate and reward it. And for that to happen, we must also ask what society can do to change the way it thinks about and how it portrays confident women. We must ask what parents, teachers and schools can do disrupt the socialization of girls that results in an unrealistic and damaging desire for perfection.
We need a new social construct.