by Karen Cardozo
In my last post I talked about an endemic lack of confidence as the structured byproduct of academic training – one that reveals itself most clearly at the point when PhDs contemplate changing careers.
In an interdisciplinary approach best be described as “against the grain,” I teach leadership studies—a business and male-dominated field that tends to view leadership as a top-down enterprise and confidence as an intrinsic trait. Yet while there is clearly some inherent basis for the confident outlook that some people seem to have “naturally,” I think confidence is behavioral and discursive, akin to Judith Butler’s performance theory of gender – a matter of Confidence Trouble, if you will.
As the recent publication of Kay and Shipman’s The Confidence Code suggests, confidence tends to be gendered male in this society. Following on the heels of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, this self-help manifesto folds into a larger trend that tends to privatize the structures of sexism (and racism and all the other “isms” without which global capitalism could not function) as the personal ailments of the under-ambitious and under-confident (a trend no doubt allied with the rise of “femvertizing” bent upon “turning oppression into opportunity,” to borrow a cringe-worthy phrase from Kristof and WuDunn’s Half the Sky. The solution: buck up and spend, ladies!).
Yet as Jessica Valenti suggests in her spirited rebuttal, “if you’re not insecure, you’re not paying attention. Women’s lack of confidence could just be a keen understanding of just how little American society values them.” We could say the same for PhDs. So what’s an under-confident academic to do – especially if you are also a woman and/or in a feminized field? The odds seem stacked against cracking the confidence code.
Obviously, as Valenti argues, we need to engage on the terrain of politics (including academic activism) to enact structural changes that create more opportunities for women’s careers over a lifetime, and less bias in the process of hiring and evaluation. Meantime, whatever the dubious nature of Kay and Shipman’s intervention, they DO uncover some potentially useful insights.
The first basic finding is that women take fewer chances and risks than men. For example, in test-taking studies, researchers found that upon closer inspection, perceived gender differences in performances resulted not from wrong answers, but from women’s greater tendency to leave an answer blank when unsure about it (thus eliminating even partial odds of hitting upon the correct answer). When the experiments were revised to insert the instruction “do not leave any answers blank,” there was no gender disparity in performance.
In addition, most women tend to wait till they meet 100 percent of any criteria before applying or seeking promotion, while more men routinely pursue opportunities for which they may not be prepared. The confidence research also finds (congruent with Sandberg’s “don’t leave before you leave” mantra) that women prematurely sidestep promotion opportunities on the grounds that advancement will be incompatible with future familial or other demands.
Lesson 1: Just go for it. Go ahead and apply for any viable possibilities without ruling yourself out prematurely. The worst that will happen is that you won’t be selected, which is the outcome you would have ensured anyway by not applying! Likewise, ban perfectionism – aim for the good enough.
Then there is also the “likeability” bind for women. It’s part of the reason not only why women fail to negotiate their salaries and benefits to the extent that most men do, but also why women are more often rebuffed and seen as “difficult” when we DO negotiate: it’s off-putting, unladylike. Lean In cites the infamous Heidi/Howard studies, where the simple name change of a first name on an otherwise identical business resume led focus groups to rate “Heidi” as a less appealing colleague, and one who is not leadership material. Closer to home, a recent study of student evaluations of college professors teaching online courses has reinforced such findings of gender bias in equally sobering fashion.
Lesson 2: Dare to not care. Strategize, protest or play the damsel in distress as you must – but ultimately, understand that there is life beyond likeability. Make the switch from internal attribution to external attribution of your difficulties: really consider the social construction of confidence and depersonalize your lack of it. Don’t let the fear of being judged negatively prevent you from engaging in any of the processes that will develop your repertoire of necessary skills and experiences (applying, negotiating, teaching, publishing, etc.).
As I will discuss in my next post, it’s less thinking and more DOING that will boost your confidence.