Solve Sexism With Overconfidence, Hope and Changing Your Brain

Even the best thinking on how to achieve economic/political parity with men always comes back to this conundrum: Women should act more like men to get ahead, but when they do, they are often penalized. So let's teach women how to act more confident, yet deferential, so as not to offend men. Then let's cross our fingers and legs and hope it doesn't backfire. Everything equal yet?

The latest supporting angle in this maddening cycle is over at The Atlantic in a piece called "The Confidence Gap." Here's the deal:

Women are doing better than ever, as the story we all know goes, but things aren't getting better enough. To wit:

We've made undeniable progress. In the United States, women now earn more college and graduate degrees than men do. We make up half the workforce, and we are closing the gap in middle management. Half a dozen global studies, conducted by the likes of Goldman Sachs and Columbia University, have found that companies employing women in large numbers outperform their competitors on every measure of profitability. Our competence has never been more obvious. Those who closely follow society's shifting values see the world moving in a female direction.

And yet, as we've worked, ever diligent, the men around us have continued to get promoted faster and be paid more. The statistics are well known: at the top, especially, women are nearly absent, and our numbers are barely increasing. Half a century since women first forced open the boardroom doors, our career trajectories still look very different from men's.

Why? They concede that children "change our priorities" and admit that there are "cultural and institutional barriers to female success." But these things don't explain something far more devastating keeping women from reaching true parity: Sexism! No, just kidding, it's us. It's our lack of confidence, which they describe as acute.

What follows is nothing you haven't heard before: Women feel like impostors. Even the smart ones with real accomplishments. Especially the smart ones with real accomplishments.

The authors, ABC News reporter Claire Shipman and BBC World News America anchor Katty Kay, have interviewed incredibly accomplished and influential women the world over. But bewilderingly, most of them feel they have pulled off the ultimate hat trick — convincing the world they are smart enough or good enough to matter when in fact they are Accomplished Woman Chopped Liver. And that happens, by the way, to women who are tech entrepreneurs who join the board of Starbucks at 29 just as it happens to All-Star WNBA players who dazzle for the Washington Mystics.

The more the authors looked for top women to offer them "instructive examples of raw, flourishing female confidence," the more they ran up against what we have been told again and again about how men are versus how women are: that men assume they are great, while women assume they are not. When men are good at something, they assume it's because they are geniuses. When women are good at something, they assume they "got lucky." Likewise, when men fail at something, it's because the thing was tough, and whatever, they'll just try again. When women fail, it's because they are dumb and worthless and should just give up already and go start a new Pinterest board devoted to more aesthetically arranged feelings.

The authors conclude that there is a confidence crisis among women. Studies back it up. Even when competence is equal, men think they are more competent and women think they are less.

But the truth is, what they outline in the piece is not really a confidence crisis. It's just sexism. It's an insidious way of valuing one gender over another that defies actual logic and leads to one gender feeling more capable than the other, regardless of what is actually true. That's it. 101. Minority groups often internalize the bias of the dominant group, and this is what explains Phyllis Schlafly.

But the trap for high-achieving woman of the Lean In variety is that complainers can't be winners. So they try to either rationalize that the problem isn't sexism, or that there is an obvious way around it. That if corporate climbing women are just better, faster, stronger, smarter, more determined, more prepared, we can outrun this irrational force.

It's feminist bootstrapping.

Certainly some people bootstrap their way to success. For a certain type of woman who desires these kinds of markers of success, it probably is possible to combat sexism through sheer willpower. Women do it, and they beat the odds. But they have advantages that many women don't have in the first place, so it becomes a kind of religion of the privileged to believe in the magic of outpacing dinosaur thinking. But plenty of women don't have the education or opportunities to run that fast, and the barriers are much more complicated and more entrenched than simply not feeling capable.

But Shipman and Kay are still dead on: Women often universally feel less worthy than men in spite of proven ability because we live in a culture that constantly devalues our contributions, and literally pays us less for them. We live in a world that telegraphs to men that they are good at leadership regardless of their people skills. This is not to suggest politics don't exist for men — but rather, on the most basic level, bias exists more for everyone else. It's real.

In my experience in corporate working life, I've watched men bluster to promotions with little to no background or training for the job, refuse to give credit, intimidate and distort reality to get ahead, even throw actual tantrums, while women who are far more knowledgeable and competent are overlooked for not elbowing hard enough, or worse, for seeming too aggressive when they dare to offer an unpopular opinion or make clear they want to rise through the ranks.

So when the authors call it a "confidence gap," I have to wonder why they didn't call it an "overconfidence gap"? Is the problem women not thinking they are good enough, or men thinking they are better than they are? In other words, they totally wrote the article like the women they describe: too willing to point the finger at themselves.

Men could just…stop thinking they are so awesome, right? Take a harder look at their flaws and accept the fact that they don't have half the ability they think, and just, step aside and let a woman with more training and a better head on her shoulders take the reins? But, no, good girls take on the work of the relationship problem and fix themselves.

Or maybe women are not underconfident but just confident? A commenter on the piece suggests that because we incorrectly use the male display of overconfidence to define regular confidence, that we judge anything less than that as not confident when in fact it might just be true confidence, which is a much more balanced, humble sense of self that includes not always thinking you are right:

The problem is that we've used the right end of the continuum to describe confidence when true confidence doesn't belong there at all. And no wonder, by comparison to the right end, everything left seems less than confident. All the attributes that describe true confidence—thinking we before me, recognizing that we're brilliant and we're not, intelligently recognizing that fortune plays a role in success, the humility to listen and change our minds—all get cheated of what they deserve because the center of confidence we've imagine isn't grounded in what social science tells us.

This is how we value a lot of things. The standard is male, and everyone else becomes beholden to that standard, and anyone who can't reach it is inferior. Coincidentally, one of the big lessons I took away from gender studies in college was from a professor who made it clear that we needed not to tell women to be different people, but we needed a society that revalued our contributions. This thinking can be its own trap, sure — there is no one set of female contributions. But when we culturally and monetarily reward overconfidence in men and punish and shun confident or unconfident women, we teach women to take less, to try less, to assert themselves less, to do a dance that offends nobody and only continues to hurt ourselves and ultimately rob everyone of the contributions women make. Then we tell them to believe in themselves more and hope.

Why must women constantly strain to accommodate the flawed thinking of the culture? Because ultimately, any other conclusion robs of us agency — and that is death to the ambitious person.

So what is to be done? The authors point to plasticity in the brain, to research that our hormones change in response to our environment, such as men whose testosterone levels decline when playing with children. They point to a study that showed that when subjects were asked to think about their answers on a test that both men and women had previously performed identically on (at 80% accuracy), just being asked to think about their ability rattled women enough to lower their scores to 75%, whereas men asked to think about their ability jumped to 93% accuracy with that nudge:

What held them back was the choice they made not to try.

The advice implicit in such findings is hardly unfamiliar: to become more confident, women need to stop thinking so much and just act. And yet, there is something very powerful about this prescription, aligning as it does with everything research tells us about the sources of female reticence.

Almost daily, new evidence emerges of just how much our brains can change over the course of our lives, in response to shifting thought patterns and behavior. If we keep at it, if we channel our talent for hard work, we can make our brains more confidence-prone. What the neuroscientists call plasticity, we call hope.

So basically, nudge ourselves. Just do it. Keep being a warrior. And keep changing ourselves. Maybe one day we really will believe we are as good as we are. Once we are truly perfect — as confident as we are capable — then what possibly could be their excuse for not rewarding us? Frankly, that sounds a lot like the old, familiar good girl mantra.