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15 February 2021

Why it’s time to stop telling women to be “more confident”

Women are not stupid: if being direct and assertive was the route to success, they’d already be doing it.

By Martha Gill

Is the only thing holding women back at work that we are naturally drippy and pathetic? Could we have demolished the patriarchy generations ago if we had only learned to ask for a pay rise without compulsively adding “no worries if not”? Is the right level of confidence really all it would take? And if so, why the hell didn’t anyone think of this earlier?

Pleas for women to stop undermining themselves are everywhere in contemporary culture – call it “confidence-gap feminism”. Corporations hold female “assertiveness” workshops, schools and universities teach women “more confident communication styles”. Brands aimed at women have “confidence ambassadors”, and a plethora of apps have sprung up to help boost our self-esteem. Where there is gender inequality, there is someone telling women it is due not to institutional sexism but their own personal lack of confidence – something that can be changed with the right power-pose seminar.

Then there are the viral tweets, such as this from the writer and director Kayla Feldman in November, which got 18.5k likes and was retweeted nearly 4,000 times:

“Can female creatives please remove the phrase ‘no worries if not’ from their vocabularies please. About 90% of emails/DMs I get from female directors/writers include this phrase. A man has NEVER said this to me. Who taught us this? We must stop apologising for taking up space.”

Or this advice last week from marketing consultant Oliver Meakings:

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“Female freelancers please increase your day rates. Men are consistently asking for double their female counterparts…You’re worth it.”

These messages have a certain empowering quality – perhaps, after all, you have more control over workplace discrimination than you realised (you were, it turns out, asking for it all along). But they are also deeply sexist.

Let’s be clear: women are not stupid. If we were rewarded for being direct in emails, we would be direct in emails. Softened language, a conciliatory attitude, superfluous apologies – these are not the result of low self-esteem but of a calculation: will I be penalised more for appearing abrasive or unconfident?

Women who reckon it’s the former are generally right. Recent studies demonstrate that women, unlike men, are expected to temper any signs of confidence with niceness. And if they don’t, they are punished.

The irony of presuming to teach women to appear confident in the workplace is that many spend the first few years in employment learning just the opposite. Young women who are judged to be too assertive too early must rapidly adjust their ideas (a friend recalls overhearing senior men exclaiming over a younger female colleague’s confidence. It was not a compliment). Women enter the workplace with the wind in their sails. By mid-career much of that bolshiness has gone.

A second irony: women tend to have more of the traits of genuine confidence than men, who have a propensity to be over-confident. Anyone who has witnessed a group of women being competitively self-deprecating (“No, you’re better than me”, “no, you’re better than me”) will know that it is not a plea for reassurance but a display of deep security. “I’m so confident”, these women are saying, “that I can afford to be generous at my own expense.”

Likewise, I’m afraid to say that when women say they are sorry, they do not always mean it. Some apologies are simply meant to smooth the conversation; others even verge close to sarcasm. It can be rather irritating when these sorrys are taken for actual admissions of offence or failure. Any British person who has been reassured by an American will know the feeling.

In fact, there’s a growing body of evidence that working women are just as confident in their abilities as men. They just don’t promote themselves as much, because they fear a backlash. And they would be right.

It is hard to see how workshops, apps and viral tweets purporting to bolster self-esteem seem could be effective at solving this problem: could they actually be undermining women by causing them to think of themselves as chronically unconfident? Could the problem, in fact, lie elsewhere?