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

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.