A new buzzphrase has entered the lexicon of gender politics over the past few months- “the confidence gap.” Brought into the public awareness by The Atlantic’s in-depth feature on the concept, its renaissance came about through conversations on the topic with journalists Claire Shipman and Katty Kay that informed the new book The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know. Shipman and Kay were surprised by this phenomenon of highly accomplished women who somehow still seemed tentative in many of their daily endeavors:
To our surprise, as we talked with women, dozens of them, all accomplished and credentialed, we kept bumping up against a dark spot that we couldn’t quite identify, a force clearly holding them back.
We began to talk with other highly successful women, hoping to find instructive examples of raw, flourishing female confidence. But the more closely we looked, the more we instead found evidence of its shortage. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.
As I pored through the article, that sinking but familiar feeling washed over me- the moment of reading something far less than flattering but absolutely true. Between reading this article, and the work I’m doing this summer with the Reciprocity Ring, I’m increasingly aware of it.
I’m guilty of this in so many ways, ways both great and small. Whether it’s holding back from correcting someone in a meeting for fear of perception, or minimizing compliments I occasionally get about having written and published a book (“Oh, it’s only self-published,” “Eh, it’s an e-book,” etc.), I’ve done it. I can recall the number of times on a recent speed-dating outing that I said, and I quote, “It’s going to sound pretentious, but I have a blog that I take really seriously.” Even as it came out of my mouth, I hated myself for saying it. What’s that about? Amy Schumer (we’ll talk more about her shortly) nails the compliment point in this sketch:
As Shipman and Kay noted, there are any number of reasons for this tentative style- for my part, I could attribute it to surrounding myself with accomplished people, the introvert-anxious tendency to ruminate on flaws and frustrations, or not wanting to seem conceited. All that talk about comparing our full-length feature to others’ award show reels? Absolutely true. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do. We create our world based on our own normal. Our normal, by its very nature, has to include more about ourselves- bumps, challenges, and missteps included- than others.
However, in my exploration on the subject, there is a field that is using this natural comparison as fuel, hurdling the obstacles it presents and using it advantageously. You probably know where I’m heading with this…comedy. We are in a great age for females in comedy. Tina Fey, the Amys Poehler and Schumer, Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair, Mindy Kaling, and several others are creating great content, running shows, and being wildly entertaining, showing us that this gap is one that can be traversed despite doubts or full preparedness.
[Quick speculatory note: when I look over this list of women, as well as others that could fall in the same category, I can’t help but notice that many of them are trained at and excel in improvisational comedy. Improvisational comedy has a key element that forces action: if you don’t do anything, nothing happens. Literally. Further, actors working in a scene together have to support those around them. Otherwise, scenes don’t move.
I’m not convinced that’s the advertised appeal of improv comedy as a training ground for corporate America, but maybe it should be- especially for women. Their voice matters more in these moments than most, because without their contributions, nothing happens. I may come back to this in a future post…]
Consider, for a moment, the acceptance speech that Inside Amy Schumer‘s star and showrunner gave at this year’s Gloria Awards and Gala. First, let me note that I have to get to this show. It seems like an incredible space for accomplished women to gather, and the nature of the awards is right up my alley. As she accepted her award, Schumer took a moment to share a difficult story from her college days about where her confidence came from…and went…and eventually returned. I couldn’t possibly put it all here, but read it. Please. It’s wonderful.
She spoke briefly about where she is now, after years of working hard to deflect and challenge criticism of her candid but true style of joking about female sexuality:
Now I feel strong and beautiful. I walk proudly down the streets of Manhattan. The people I love, love me. I make the funniest people in the country laugh, and they are my friends. I am a great friend and an even better sister […] I am a hot-blooded fighter and I am fearless.
I’m going to stop here for a moment to point something out. Schumer’s attitude in this arena is well-deserved, particularly in the context of her full speech. But in many fields, there are adverse consequences to coming forth with her level of confidence. Kay and Shipman discuss this in their piece:
Yes, women suffer consequences for their lack of confidence- but when they do behave assertively, they may suffer a whole other set of consequences, ones that men don’t typically experience. Attitudes toward women are changing, and for the better, but a host of troubling research shows that they can still pay a heavier social and even professional penalty than men do for acting in a way that’s seen as aggressive.
This phenomenon of shaming confident women and deeming them insufficiently submissive is real. Mindy Kaling talked about this in a Parade magazine interview last year; her quote implies that this is true for minority women (I’ve certainly seen that), but it could be true of any woman that seems poised to pursue something big:
It should also be noted that this opinion of confidence is not held only by other genders; women are equally susceptible to this criticism from other women. In a separate article about the confidence gap (in this instance, one questioning its origin), Leslie Loftis alludes to this as she discusses a distinction between true confidence and the false bravado that we sometimes put up to disguise fear. Loftis argues that the two yield different reactions:
Like most other commentators, they assume that professional women get called bitches for assertive behavior. But considering their point about how most people can easily spot fake confidence and how faking confidence often involves acting assertive, I wonder if the slur is actually thrown at women with fake confidence.
I’ll be honest, I’m not prepared to start conversations that assess the validity of anyone’s confidence. But I will say that the power of the confidence that comes from women like Schumer, Kaling, and others (unless they’re far better actresses than we could possibly fathom) is that it is real. I want to return you now to the conclusion of Schumer’s Gloria Awards speech, in which she chooses to not let a moment of broken confidence define her whole being (language ahead):
I can be reduced to that lost college freshman so quickly sometimes, I want to quit. Not performing, but being a woman altogether […] But then I think, “Fuck that. […] I am a woman with thoughts and questions and shit to say. I say if I’m beautiful. I say if I’m strong. You will not determine my story, I will.”
And ultimately, this is where traversing the confidence gap needs to come from: self-determination of confidence, not levels of confidence in comparison to male counterparts. Shipman and Kay addressed this in their piece:
Confidence is not, as we once believed, just feeling good about yourself. If women simply needed words of reassurance, they’d have commandeered the corner office long ago. Perhaps the clearest, and most useful, definition of confidence we came across was the one supplied by Richard Petty, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, who has spent decades focused on the subject. “Confidence,” he told us, “is the stuff that turns thoughts into action.” (emphasis added)
It’s going to sound like I’m minimizing, and I’m not trying to, but…that’s really all it takes. Have a good idea? Don’t lose yourself in all the steps it will take to make it a reality. Just start doing those things that will get you closer. Worried about what others will think? Tina Fey has a beautiful and brash essay in her book Bossypants about this called “I Don’t Care If You Like It,” that has some wildly practical advice about how to deal with adverse receptions to your work, including how to deal with that resistance if it comes from a male counterpart.
We all get tripped up in those moments where we see ourselves imperfectly, and believe we have evidence of our inability to get a job done. Sometimes, we even use those moments as reasons to hold back from what we’re fully capable of. But, we’re less cognizant of, attentive to, or appropriately reverent of moments where we truly did something well, made someone’s day, or otherwise excelled. Challenge yourself to value those moments more than the screwups.
Better, let both types of moments inform your work. Gabourey Sidibe also accepted a Gloria award the evening that Amy Schumer was honored, and the conclusion of her speech says it all about this:
If I hadn’t been told I’m garbage, I wouldn’t have learned to show people I’m talented. And if everyone had always laughed at my jokes, I wouldn’t have learned how to be so funny. If they hadn’t told me I was ugly, I never would have searched for my beauty. And if they hadn’t tried to break me down, I wouldn’t know that I’m unbreakable.
Some of the best moments on 30 Rock, Inside Amy Schumer, Broad City, The Mindy Project, and countless other comedic programs created and run by women are borne of our most flawed moments. Those moments, for the immediate embarrassment they create, make us resilient. They didn’t kill us in the moments they occurred and likely won’t down the road. And they make the happier moments mean more. So why not find a positive way to make them part of your story?
Can you think of moments where you let a lapse in confidence hold you back? How do you summon confidence on days it doesn’t come naturally? And who inspires you to be your most confident self?