“You can’t self-help away deeply-ingrained structural discrimination.”

The Confidence Code book coverJessica has a good piece in The Guardian today on the gender confidence gap and the new book The Confidence Code which “argues that what’s truly holding women back is their own self-doubt.” As Amanda Hess has noted, this book is part of a genre that’s enjoying popularity right now — one that she describes as teaching women how “you, too, can become a successful blowhard.”

As Amanda notes, it’s worth questioning if we really want to be imitating the attributes of overconfident high-achievers. And it’s also debatable if that’ll even work. The confidence gap, Jessica argues, is a reflection of a culture that gives women no reason to feel self-assured.” So you can “fake it ’til you make it” all you want, but real change won’t come until the culture shifts.

In girlhood, starkly-divided toy aisles teach us that engineering, electronics and science toys are for boys, that the futures for which we should be preparing are those of the Barbie Dream House variety. Adolescent girls – especially girls of color – are given less teacher attention in the classroom than their male peers. A full 56% of female students report being sexually harassed. Sexual assault on college campuses is rampant and goes largely unpunished, women can barely walk down the street without fear of harassment, and we make up the majority of American adults in poverty.

The truth is, if you’re not insecure, you’re not paying attention. Women’s lack of confidence could actually just be a keen understanding of just how little American society values them.

While encouraging women to have more self-esteem is not a bad idea generally, there’s no evidence that being more assertive will change the way women are perceived in the workplace. Confident women at work are still labeled “bossy” and “bitchy”, to their own detriment – unless they can “turn it off”. And despite all the gains women have made, most Americans – men and women – would still prefer a male boss. While Kay and Shipman give a nod to ambitious women who are judged more harshly than their male peers, they seem to have no solution – other than putting the onus on women to change.

For example, when Kay and Shipman talked to young women participating in Running Start – an organization that trains college-aged women to run for public office – they heard from one woman worried about being labeled a “bitch” if she was too assertive. Another spoke up about the difference between going to an all-girls school – where everyone raised her hand – and her current school, where women didn’t speak up in class.

Kay and Shipman’s response is to bemoan “what a waste of energy and talent all this agonizing can be”. But where they see agonizing, I see identifying discrimination – a first step in taking action to end sexism. In the 1970s, this kind of consciousness-raising sparked a new wave of feminism. Now, decades later, women are perplexingly being advised to turn inward to solve external problems.

I think that last point is really key. As we discussed during the whole Ban Bossy debate, instilling more confidence and leadership skills in women and girls is good. It only becomes a problem if we pretend that these individual empowerment efforts are all it takes to end gender inequality. So yes, go ahead and work hard to try to unlearn the self-doubt instilled by a sexist society — but, far more importantly, talk about that shit. With everyone, all the time, until it stops being so hard.

Maya DusenberyMaya still finds it easier to speak up in class on the internet.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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