If one more privileged white woman tells me to be confident…

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you noticed the recent spate of wealthy, white, powerful women — Arianna Huffington (who refuses to pay writers at HuffPost), Sheryl Sandberg and now Katty Kay (BBC anchor) and Claire Shipman — selling books telling the rest of us to, you know, man up already?

Katty Kay, BBC presenter and author
Katty Kay, BBC presenter and author

Great post from Amanda Hess at Slate:

The Confidence Code is a kind of Lean In: Redux, and like Sandberg’s book, its mission is to vault America’s most ambitious women into even higher echelons of power. Also catering to this set: The 10 Habits of Highly Successful Women, a new collection of testimonies from powerful gals, and the just-released Thrive, in which Arianna Huffington advises readers to focus on the “third metric” of success, well-being. (This one’s for women who have already read about securing the first two metrics—money and power, obviously). The Atlantic also took time this month to ask why female CEOS are holding themselves back in comparison to their male peers. (Can you believe Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles made only $403,857 in 2012? Sounds like somebody needs to “lean in.”)

Why is this genre enjoying such a moment right now? A few years ago, in the wake of the financial crisis, the think piece du jour centered on how overconfident men were a danger to themselves and their country. Now, women are being told to ape these poisonous personality quirks for feminist life lessons. Buy these books and you, too, can become a successful blowhard.

Now it’s a cover story in The Atlantic:

We know the feeling firsthand. Comparing notes about confidence over dinner one night last year, despite how well we knew each other, was a revelation. Katty got a degree from a top university, speaks several languages, and yet had spent her life convinced that she just wasn’t intelligent enough to compete for the most-prestigious jobs in journalism. She still entertained the notion that her public profile in America was thanks to her English accent, which surely, she suspected, gave her a few extra IQ points every time she opened her mouth.

Claire found that implausible, laughable really, and yet she had a habit of telling people she was “just lucky”—in the right place at the right time—when asked how she became a CNN correspondent in Moscow while still in her 20s. And she, too, for years, routinely deferred to the alpha-male journalists around her, assuming that because they were so much louder, so much more certain, they just knew more. She subconsciously believed that they had a right to talk more on television. But were they really more competent? Or just more self-assured?

This is simply too rich.

The majority of women living in poverty, working and in old age, never made a decent wage and/or took time off to raise children. Many of the millions of low-wage workers in retail and food-service earn crap money for exhausting work. I worked low-wage retail for 2.5 years and wrote a book about it.

I confidently asked my bosses for a promotion — from $11/hour to $45,000 a year as assistant manager — but never even got the courtesy of an interview, despite a track record of consistently high sales and praise from my customers.

They hired a 25-year-old man from another company instead.

 Many women don’t lack confidence.

They lack income. They lack opportunity. They lack internal support. They lack the fuck-you savings fund that allows us to walk away quickly from a toxic boss or environment to find a place that will reward and value us.

Here’s a breakdown of what American women are earning, from Catalyst, a source I trust — the average American woman working full-time makes $37,791 — compared to a man’s $49, 398.

I don’t buy the argument that discrimination alone makes the difference, nor self-confidence. Skills, education, access to networks of people who are ready to hire, manage, promote? Yes.

I’ve met plenty of women — like the 75-year-old designer I interviewed this week — who don’t lack a scintilla of self-confidence.

It’s a difficult path for women to navigate, that between annoying asshole and demure doormat. Yet we all know who walks away with the best assignments, income, awards and promotions.

I judged some journalism awards last year, with two men 20 years my junior. One, driving a shiny new SUV, made sure to tell us he had two $8,000 assignments in hand.

Excuse me?

I’ve yet to win an $8,000 assignment. Not for lack of confidence, that’s for sure. But maybe because (?) I don’t yelp out my income to a stranger.

I reality-checked this guy with a few former female colleagues who rolled their eyes. Good to know.

My favorite book on this subject is not a new one, but a useful and practical one — Women Don’t Ask — because it addresses not some faux foot-shuffling but the very real nasty pushback women often get, often from other pissed-off women, when we do assert ourselves with very real confidence.

How dare you?

Do you struggle with feeling confident?

How do you address it?


75 thoughts on “If one more privileged white woman tells me to be confident…

  1. Maybe your next book will be an exploration of the Gwyneth, or Goop Syndrome? Or, when confidence becomes bloody-minded arrogance and self-aggrandizement… I applaud your insight. I wonder if at times confidence is an impediment? Striving to attain something might come from a different place… Well done, Caitlin!

    1. Good to hear from you again! Gwyneth…do not get me started….:-)

      I think it’s a challenge. If we really want the goodies (power, $$$$, access to same, and some of us do), we are going to piss some people off. Women are heavily socialized not to do that. I’d rather be well-compensated than well-liked. I’d prefer not to have to make a choice, of course.

      1. You’re right, it’s not a comfortable choice, or one a certain generation of women (I think I’m older than you) makes easily. Speaking for myself, and having been recently thrust into a situation where I’m doing a lot of self-promotion—hell, it just runs contrary to everything I was taught as a youngster.

      2. It’s generational to some degree, and cultural — which I’ve blogged about before.

        I grew up in Canada where boasting about yourself, as in the UK and other places, is considered very declasse. In the U.S. in a crappy economy, with social media, with people half my age happily touting themselves 24/7, I have to be visible and audible to compete — probably a lot more than I’d ideally prefer.

        I started using Twitter about six weeks ago. My feelings about it range from wtf? to enjoying some witty banter. Has it done me any good? I’ll know soon enough if I won a fellowship I heard about there.

      3. I just tweeted your article!
        I think I started semi-chatting on that medium about the same time you did. And we share the same puzzlement about how to be visible in world filled with not-so-soigné selfies.
        Brave new world, right 😉 ?
        Let me know about the fellowship!

      4. Thanks!

        The fellowship people are taking freaking forever to make up their minds. Really frustrating as I have a very compressed amount of time left to me before I start teaching in late August in which to travel, which it requires.

  2. I’m usually quite confident, but that’s just my nature. I’m surprised that so many people just feel you ned to apply yourself and things will magically go your way, though. If that was the case, I’d have had a publisher by age 18 and movies based on each of my books out by now! Hoenstly, someone needs to go up to these people and remind them there’s more to factor in than a can-do-anything attitude!

  3. Well said, Caitlin! The “fuck you savings fund” — I like that, mostly because it’s funny, but partly because when I was in a toxic job and couldn’t get out, I had a playlist on my iPod called “Fuck You.”

    1. Thanks!

      It’s only funny if you have such a fund and can flee. It’s soul and health-destroying if you work in a place that you really hate. I’ve done it.

      I hope (?) you’re out now, and happier.

  4. Good blog, this is a topic closeto my heart. I watched my well educated highly intelligent mother, doctor, work three jobs to single handedly raise us in the best way possible. I find it offensive that there are self help books that would say she needed to be more “confident”, or put herself out there more. I would far rather see her celebrated for the incredibly tough, humble woman who saved countless lives.

    I’ve have seen the incredible effects of poverty that affect the chance for women to succeed both in third world slums & first world countries.

    Working with teenage girls here at home, I see the damaging effect reality TV and a lot of our culture has on their self esteem. Altering what they think they ‘should’ or can aim for.

    It’s a huge problem, I’m not sure the solution. But I find it slightly insulting that a couple of power hungry, well heeled, ‘fuck you savings fund’ women write self help books.


    1. Chloe, thanks for commenting — good to hear from you!

      I think this sort of book is stupid because it keeps addressing a “problem” that’s simplistic and individualistic; Hey, if you were just more confident, you could….whatever. There are, as you know, many structural obstacles in the way of women’s real economic and political progress. I doubt that self-confidence is the largest of these.

      How about — money? access to safe, affordable, reliable birth control? education? sanitation?

  5. I shared this with some female colleagues via Facebook. The ‘confident’ argument feels like an attempt to shame; it (incorrectly) tells women that it’s ‘our fault, girls’ if we can’t compete with the big boys. Hate it, hate it, hate it.

    “They lack the fuck-you savings fund that allows us to walk away quickly from a toxic boss or environment to find a place that will reward and value us.” This totally nails it. My former employer gloated over how cheaply he could hire women to write for his publication, because 1) they’re women, and 2) the industry has tanked, so it’s a buyer’s market. Men fought back, demanding better pay, and then left. Women supporting kids, got stuck.

    1. Thank you! I really appreciate that…and great to hear from you again…

      Boy, having some $$$ with which to flee (and/or low enough overhead you are not stuck) is so crucial. I had a trade magazine boss from hell (truly nuts) right after my marriage ended and I still quit — I had just enough $$ to get through a few months freelance but anything was better than the shrieking and cursing harridan we worked for. I thought, maybe it’s me? One of my co-workers, with kids, told me she was on anti-depressants to get through daily life in that hellhole.

      It’s only a buyers’ market if you really have NO other options. To keep our monthly costs low, we drive an old car and live in a small apartment — precisely to “afford” the luxury of walking away from PITA clients, which I occasionally do. We will not be starving or homeless if I fire a few, and it allows me some choice in how my life will go. That is a freedom I value very highly.

      1. I completely agree, from the nagging self-doubt that suggests maybe it is me, to the importance of the Go-To-Hell Fund. My husband made his career in oil, which is toxic enough to warrant keeping money on hand to move out of those degenerating situations. Keeping a low overhead is key! Those toxic work places stand out, however, as they so often have a very young staff trying to get themselves started in a career, anyway they can; I do feel for them.

      2. Low overhead is my mantra! I’d rather — as we do — drive an old/working/non-rusty vehicle and have the freedom to walk away from crappy gigs, as I recently did with one, much to the scorn and dismay of some of my fellow freelancers.

        If you tie golden chains to your ankles, don’t be angry at people running in sneakers. It’s a choice.

      3. I think that our days of secure contracts and permanent employment are ending, or at least going on suspension.

        A columnist in our local Regina, Saskatchewan paper ran this morning, on “intergeneration inequity” … young folk do not have the job security that early baby-boomers had, and even as we age such security remains elusive. The writer raises some interesting questions about lifestyle and expectations: http://www.leaderpost.com/business/Fingas+leaving+youth+poor+legacy/9746602/story.html

      4. In the U.S.., where I’ve lived since 1989, everyone but the very fortunate is employed “at will.” That means you can be fired anywhere, anytime for NO reason. Yup. People here are utterly cowed. Forget severance. I hired a lawyer once and got it that way, but only after threatening a lawsuit — and meaning it.

        Thanks for the link…I look forward to reading it.

  6. Excellent post. I read about three pages if Lean In before I threw it on the ground. She is so out of touch with the reality for most women especially ones tryin to balance work, life and family.

    1. Thanks so much!

      I haven’t read it, nor do I intend to. I’m done with prescriptions for living from women who have no clue what real life is like for most of us, even without children.

      1. Me too! 🙂 I think more women just need plain old confidence in themselves. They need to be happy with who they are and what they are and how they look. There are so many bad images out there telling us not to be confident! Have you seen the documentary Miss Representation? If not, a MUST see but you will be pissed off after. It is so true though.

      2. I haven’t.

        Personally, I think women need: equal pay legislation; a higher federal minimum wage and paid maternity leave, to start with. The externalities are far worse than any internal voice.

  7. rich

    Honestly, this could be the title of your next book…The Fuck You Savings Fund…….
    I truly enjoy this blog, even more so when you get riled up…
    some of these posts have made me think and change things….
    please keep it up…

  8. It is still a struggle for women. It isn’t much better in Canada. I’m so glad I’m out of the rat race. That doesn’t make it any easier for you.
    I’ve taken up music in my old age. I write politically incorrect music, a few love songs, and I tell a story at the end of the album, that involves some of our travels. Have a listen.

      1. My younger daughter got into a male dominated profession (electrician)and she did it by working hard and being in their face. She has a name that neither indicates male or female ‘Renee”. She applied for a job in the TTC (transit) got through all the testing until they found out she was female. She told them she would report them for discrimination if they didn’t hire her and they might as well hire her because she was just going to keep coming back until they did. She’s been there for two years now.
        At his stage in the game it is hard for both men and women in the work force. The Canadian government has taken a very lenient approach to foreign works. The corporation don’t have to cover their benefits or pay the going wage.
        You’re right it is time to take a stand.

      2. She rocks! Good for you for raising such a determined woman. I left Toronto in 1986, at 30. I started my journalism career there as a photographer — and the photo editor at Macleans (when I was putting myself through U of T with my freelancing) told me he would never assign to me because the men had families to support. What a dick. Like I had no bills to pay?

        I think now more than ever we all need back-up — not just rich white women telling us to be like them. Gah.

      3. My sister-in-law was a computer programer many years ago when they had those big main frames. At that time they wouldn’t let her qualify for a pension. She had the wisdom and good fortune to buy a house in Toronto. She paid $68,000. some 20-30 years ago. She just sold it for a million last fall. It was just a tear down but the land had become so valuable. It wasn’t easy for her either. She is now in a retirement home and has the means to pay for it.
        We are still living by our wits.

      4. Indeed.

        My mother, at 80, is now in a Victoria nursing home, $5K a month. She was lucky and smart and tough enough to save a ton of money and made good real estate investments as well. Without wits (and income), we’re toast.

      5. You got that right. My sister-in-law is 77 yrs. and not in the greatest health. She’s paying the $5k a month deal too.
        Victoria is a nice place to be. I hope your mother is able to enjoy it.
        You know they made some Canadian journalists Senators. They made out like bandits. The RCMP is checking them out now. They may well be bandits for real. Have a listen to my song The Senator’s Blues in the album Sahara Rose. If you go to my web page and click on the album cover it will take you to iTunes. Click on the album cover again and you can sample the music for free. The Senator’s Blues is rather funny – in a sad way. Enjoy.

      6. Unfortunately that is what often happens to a lot of us. Got to keep moving. There is still a lot to see and do.
        Keep the faith.

      7. You know you possess a powerful weapon with your writing. Even though the writing industry is going through a terrible transition there is still nothing mightier than the pen.

      8. There is always an audience even in this changing time of journalism. It may not happen right away, but eventually you will be heard. (That’s my motto for my music as well) Keep the faith. I’m sure that many people share your feelings.

      9. You know we may not live to see the changes but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t contribute to them. We are carrying the baton a certain distance then we pass it on to the next generation. We just have to remember to smell a few roses along the way.

  9. “… the very real nasty pushback women often get, often from other pissed-off women, when we do assert ourselves with very real confidence.” <- This describes what I've experienced in the working world- Female peers that don't support other women in their careers.

    Go you know who I admire? Women who bring the classic feminine to their jobs. Good listeners, emotional connectors, articulated communicators, and the style to win over others with an authentic human response rather than calculated manipulation.
    Too often, women have fallen for the idea that they have to BE like a man to compete. The women described above seem to have joined this unfortunate characterization.
    Thank you for your post. We need to do so much more.

  10. I feel like this post is tainted with traces of both spite and jealously. I don’t think all women with power and money who wish other women to get money and power are detached from reality, or unethical or don’t work extremely hard for the money and power they have earned. I am not sure that the problem has been clearly identified in this article (as why women do not excel as much as men financially, I think that is the subject(?)) and there has not been any other solution voiced as well. Also, women nowadays are at times faced with extreme expectations of being academically successful, professionally successful, financially successful and successful as a wife and mother. This can be a near impossible feat for all women to pull off. I find to feel happy about the course of one’s life you must be happy with what you have achieved and continue to better your abilities and production in whatever area you choose to work/excel in. This may not always be able to be monetized or counted in a professional way but that does not mean as a woman that you are unsuccessful.

    One thing that upsets me in the arts though which you have touched on here is the subject of promotion. In the arts they call it “self-promotion” which I feel has an instantly derogatory slant. Successful businesses promote a lot, period. Artists, writers, photographers, filmmakers, etc. must promote. It’s not “shameless self-promotion”. It’s just promotion. This idea is drummed into our heads in arts school that it is bad to work with the goal of making money. This is totally false. It is not unethical as a practitioner in the arts to want to make money, or to ask for money, or even demand it but unfortunately we are actually taught that in arts colleges and universities. “Selling-out” is completely a personal ethics question but really there should be nothing wrong with being commercially as well as creatively successful.

    I bet you there are just as many poorly paid men in the arts as there are poorly paid women. Men that lack self-confidence to promote and demand they get paid for their work. Whenever I see a very young person that is very successful, I start getting curious about who they know and why he/she was put in that position. Often times you find nepotism played a part or they really have been working hard in the field for a very long time even though they are young. Some people are just more driven than others and start early to get where they want to go.

    1. Neither spite nor jealousy — just weary frustration from someone who’s been working for as long (forgive the ageist comment) as you’ve been alive. Been there, heard that. Sick of it.

      So many of the obstacles women face are not going to be (re)solved by yet another perky “You GO girl!” tome.

      “Whenever I see a very young person that is very successful, I start getting curious about who they know and why he/she was put in that position. Often times you find nepotism played a part or they really have been working hard in the field for a very long time even though they are young. Some people are just more driven than others and start early to get where they want to go.”

      I was published as a photographer in Time and the Globe and Star before graduating from college. I had a staff job at the Globe and Mail by 26. I also started my career at 18 and did almost nothing else. Yes, driven can do it. I had zero connections or introductions or mentors to achieve that.

    2. “are detached from reality, or unethical or don’t work extremely hard for the money and power they have earned.”

      I don’t think these authors are unethical and it’s clear they have worked their asses off. But they are a very thin and un-representative slice of what many women are going to face professionally and economically. So, yes, I do think they are detached from the fiscal reality of most women’s lives below the highly-educated professional class.

      I’d be very curious to hear what women of color have to say about these books. Listening to Oprah yammer on about selling off the excess contents of her four homes is just about as compelling, as she did in a recent issue of her magazine. She did, which is admirable indeed, donate all the proceeds to girls’ education.

  11. Re: first response You have absolutely proved the point. You are successful. And just because you don’t make a $400,000 a year or get $8,000 assignments does not mean you are not a success. You are a freelance writer. You are doing it and have 10,000 people that want to listen to what you have to say about writing. Don’t degrade the influence and status you have to create a positive change in your field.

    Re: second response You’re right they don’t represent the majority of working women but they seem to be doing something right and appealing to somebody! I don’t really know what the harm is in telling people they can aspire to greater heights even if the message is a bit vacuous. I consider myself lucky to have gone to an all girl’s high school and to know so many women that are intelligent and over-achieving in their fields of endeavors. However, I do find it hard sometimes not to gauge my own success based on monetary and materialistic yardsticks.

    1. My influence is pretty limited, but thanks for the kind words.

      They do appeal to people, of course, or publishers wouldn’t publish their books. They have enormous audiences.

      I wonder how much you and I had a HUGE boost in self-confidence and awareness of possibility from where we went to school. I’ve thought about it a lot and am grateful I escaped the sexist and chauvinist toxicity of much of “real life” — i.e. kowtowing to men and boys — for so long. It was normal for us to see women as high achieving. I like that.

      I live in an area that is insanely wealthy so it’s easy to feel like a rube when you are not. But I know what I do and why I do it.

  12. Right on the money, Caitlin! (Obviously not a lot of money, which I sympathize, but you’re on it…)

    I, too, am sick to death of silver spoon-fed women posing as “my” champions for success. I have never had a problem with my self-confidence and I’ve never had a problem leaning in, standing up, holding out, or any other pose, either. But, over and over, I have had problems with co-workers being intimidated by me and bosses trying to put me in my place because I question authority. I have had problems because whenever I sit at the table, I focus on solutions, not issues. I have had problems with being passed over for jobs that I was very qualified for, and even liked, for girls who were cuter. My career problems never had anything to do with my confidence, but everything to do with my culture, something in which these divas are completely out of touch with.

    They don’t speak for me — they don’t even know my language. In fact, I don’t even think they know what *they’re* saying! There are articles and studies that have demonstrated that women who are more demure and agreeable in the office get the rewards. The constant barrage of advertisements sexualizing girls still remind us that according to the money makers, women are still encouraged to be seen and not heard. If these self-proclaimed vagina pioneers think that it was their confidence and “leaning in” that put them where they are, joke’s on them. When your last name’s attached to all those zeroes, you don’t have to say a word.

    1. Whew!

      Sing it, sister! 🙂

      Well said. Much of this rings true for me as well. I was very struck, when I moved to NYC from Canada (and still am) that the uber-women here, the ones with a shitload of power, are THIN as hell and generally speak very softly. There is a very narrow definition of attractive/promotable.

  13. Bravo. It’s not just a chasm to cross for confidence–it’s a culture change. It’s shifting attitudes and becoming more enlightened–both males and females. Ignorance and arrogance don’t choose favorites, gender-wise.

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    1. Thanks.

      I wonder how many women are even aware of their privilege? I live in a part of the U.S. where so many things are simply assumed and people whine if they don’t get them; a week spent in Nicaragua was one of the greatest gifts I’ve been given in years, seeing a kind of very real, deep poverty and yet we were treated there with generosity and kindness. Very eye-opening…and to return to elbow-in-your-eye America…depressing.

  15. Gilraen

    I am confident in what I can do and what I am. But also in what I am not and what I cannot do or simply do not want to do.
    Confidence is also deciding what way you want to go, what you do and do not want to do and listening to yourself.
    I do not begrudge any of the women their place, they obviously worked hard for it and talented in their own field. And if it is what they want then even better for them. But I do not wish to learn from these ladies (nor men with the same type of attitude) as power is not one of the things I strive for.
    I have plenty of female examples and women I admire, just as there are men I admire. But none of them are these in your face-look at me- powerhouse people. Somehow I find them complete turn offs to be honest. I guess in part because, from what I read, they assume that everybody must want what they have and well no I don’t. That too is confidence in my book

    P.S. twitter can be great fun

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  18. [I work for an organization that deals directly with this, by the numbers in the census data, American Community Survey and other sources.]

    Just speaking personally, I am appreciating the argument and comment thread going past the script and to the stark numbers and anecdotes. Lack of confidence is overrated; but, beyond that and, as you note, not even discrimination explains all. I think that leads us to policy and structures, if we were to lean toward anything.

    There is policy that’s needed and policy that needs to change. The country lacks the necessary policies to enable women to do the caring labor that typically falls to them (children, aging parents, sick relatives, etc.) without paying a huge penalty in salaries, promotions, new job opportunities. We go in-depth on the gender disparity and many others structures that affect overall well-being in an upcoming (December) report called: A Portrait of California.


    1. Thanks…would love to learn more about this…so much of it ends up in heated rhetoric going nowhere and the usual trumpeting of how it’s all up to us as individuals to figure it out. We are much more than mere units of economic productivity (or lack of same.)

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