Women Lack Confidence? As If. We Just Get Punished For Showing It

Two women boxing
Image by Powerhouse Museum Collection via Flickr

Loved this thoughtful post from the blog BitchPhd about when, where and why women behave as though they lack confidence — when many of us actually don’t:

When did self-promotion, confidence, and even occasional arrogance become the exclusive domain of men? I believe that we can have a sea change in how women behave without it being a submission to the forces of patriarchy. And I firmly reject the notion that women are “naturally” inclined to be more collaborative, less arrogant, and less self-promoting than men. Zandt doesn’t say that, but it’s running as a subtext through what she wrote.

In order to answer the question of what behavior is “natural” to men or women, you need to look at girls. Pre-pubescent girls, girls who have had healthy childhoods in a loving environment and a stimulating education. They are not retiring. They do not deprecate themselves. If they are not shy (and some of them are) they will happily tell you all about the awesome things they’ve done and how great they are. They are just as arrogant as the boys, maybe even more so. They compete with each other and with boys, they try furiously to make themselves stand out.

I was one of those girls. And let me tell you, I was punished mightily for it, starting right about the time that puberty crept up. Teachers, friends, and friends’ parents repeatedly told me I was “conceited.” This was often not even for saying anything, but merely for succeeding in a given activity. I was lucky, though. These messages were never reinforced at home. My dad wasn’t a cheerleader-type parent, but he never cut me down, either. I’d tell him about how girls at school shunned me after I succeeded at something, whether it was getting a role in a school play or winning the spelling bee, and he’d tell me that I didn’t need to change my behavior. He didn’t tell me I was better than them, either, or that they were “just jealous.” He just said, you are all changing and growing up and maybe some of them will stay your friends and some of them won’t. I know it hurts, and I’m sorry. (Ps, my dad is awesome).

So I managed to retain most of that childhood exuberance. But I’m still surprised by my instincts toward self-doubt.

I doubt there’s a successful woman out there, anywhere, who hasn’t struggled with this. Recently, my own Dad jibed me: “You don’t lack for confidence, do you?” My father, who won international awards for his work as a filmmaker, isn’t one to mince words. “The apple falls close to the tree,” I replied. Growing up in a family of people who never had jobs, job security, raises, promotions or pensions — all of them freelancers in film, television, radio and print — taught me that self-doubt meant loss of income.

You can’t sell yourself, or your skills, and the two become conflated, if you think you’re lousy or someone’s better than you. They probably are! But that’s not the point. Anyone selling their services into the open marketplace needs a solid sense of their value. And showing it takes confidence. No one wants to hire the chick who fiddles with her hair or says “um” or “sorry”.

Yet women are, indeed, punished for their — you should pardon the expression — ballsiness. A feisty woman who’s ready and willing to fight hard for her ideas and vision isn’t someone many other women are comfortable with. Some men, and their sons, are also happy to beat the hell out of a woman who thinks she’s something, a lesson I learned firsthand.

I arrived halfway through tenth grade at a Toronto high school filled with kids who’d known one another since elementary school and one in which, like many, the boys ruled. I’d spent all my previous life surrounded by cool, accomplished women and girls in an all-female private school and summer camp. Deferring to boys because they were male was just…weird.

A small group of them were determined to teach me a lesson, and three years of brutal, relentless, daily and very public verbal bullying were my reward for daring to be so outwardly confident. How dare I? It left scars, no question, but allowing them to define me, and destroy my sense of excitement about the world? Not an option.

When I re-kindled a friendship with my high school best friend decades later after a reunion, I asked her why they’d singled me out for such abuse. “You were confident. You scared them to death.”

One of my favorite books on the subject, one I think every woman and female teen must read as they negotiate their careers, is Women Don’t Ask, by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. The authors studied a group of women and why they failed to ask for more for themselves when negotiating in a business setting — and the very real backlash from those who don’t is one of the issues.

2 thoughts on “Women Lack Confidence? As If. We Just Get Punished For Showing It

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Women Lack Confidence? As If. We Just Get Punished For Showing It - Caitlin Kelly - Broadside - True/Slant -- Topsy.com

  2. inmyhumbleopinion

    Ugh, you’re bringing back memories of every performance review I’ve ever had in my former corporate life. I was never called out for performing poorly because, of course, no one could ever fault my strategic, project management, or training skills. But I was always made to feel that my direct style of communicating, particularly with superiors, was too forthright, which made my “people skills” lacking. In other words, because I didn’t kiss enough butts and was apparently too threatening, I was always being held back. I totally agree with this post–it’s not that women aren’t confident enough to ask for what they want. It’s that their bosses are usually too insecure to make it happen.

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