Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, authors of The Confidence Code. Photo: Stephen Voss/Redux/Eyevine
Show Hide image

Talking about women’s lack of confidence may be counterproductive

A new book by newscasters Katty Kay and Clare Shipman argues women’s timidity is holding them back at work – but does it perpetuate the idea that confidence is a masculine trait.

Women haven’t tired of hearing about their lack of confidence at work – or, at least, that’s what publishers are betting on. And it seems to be paying off. A year after Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In took over the bestseller lists, two journalists, BBC News anchor Katty Kay and ABC’s senior correspondent Claire Shipman, have published The Confidence Code, which argues that women’s timidity is holding them back in the workplace. Already excerpts from the book have been published and it is being discussed far and wide, while Lean In has sold more than 1.6 million copies so far and seems to have spawned almost that many op-eds and blog posts.

The picture Kay and Shipman paint is dire. Women across the spectrum, it seems, hesitate to put themselves up for promotion, ask for pay rises or voice their ideas. Even the most successful apparently suffer from “imposter syndrome”, chalking their achievements up to being in the right place at the right time. Indeed, in a recent survey of British managers, half the women – but less than a third of the men – admitted to feeling insecure about their job performance. A study of Hewlett-Packard employees found that women applied for promotion only when they met 100 per cent of the job requirements, whereas men were comfortable putting themselves up for promotion if they met just 60 per cent of the criteria.

“Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in,” say Shipman and Kay. “Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect.”

Although we can’t stop talking about women’s lack of confidence, that might not be doing us any favours. The confidence crusaders believe that if they make women aware of the problem they will adjust their behaviour. But in propagating the idea that confidence is a masculine trait, women like Sandberg, Shipman and Kay make self-assured women feel even more like outliers – and perpetuate the very stereotype they want to dismantle.

Arguing that a problem ought to be ignored rather than confronted may be unusual, but confidence is a hard-to-define concept. Shipman and Kay offer a few practical tips – sit up straight, hold your chin up, get more sleep – but ultimately the key to confidence is self-deception. Convincing yourself you’re better than you think is a complicated exercise in doublethink, and, for women, those mental gymnastics only get harder the more we’re exposed to the stereotype that we’re the less confident gender.

Study after study has found evidence for “stereotype threat”: people conform to the set ideas that are applied to them. The effect is especially strong when people are actively reminded of those ideas. In one study, men and women with a similar background in maths were set a series of problems. One group was told that men and women performed about the same on this test; another group was told that men tended to score higher. In the group that was “gender-primed” men outperformed women, but the differences disappeared when the subjects were told the scores didn’t vary by gender. In another experiment, psychologists made women play an online game of chess against an unseen opponent. When the women were told that their opponent was male, they played more defensively and were less likely to win. Their performance dropped even further if the researchers reminded them of the stereotype that women are bad at chess.

There are many situations in which awareness leads to meaningful change. But by bombarding us with evidence that women are less confident than men, proponents of the “confidence gap” are doing women a disservice.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

Getty
Show Hide image

Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.