The Conversation

THE CONFIDENCE GAP

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s May cover story delved into why men tend to be so much more confident than women, particularly in the workplace, and why many women who are confident are perceived negatively. The story gained traction when Jill Abramson, The New York Times’ first female executive editor—who had a reputation for being “pushy”—was fired in mid-May. Abramson, The Guardian’s Lauren Maffeo noted, “has accidentally become the first test case for Shipman and Kay’s confidence gap.”

By focusing so heavily on the “confidence gap,” Kay and Shipman ignore the structural and institutional barriers to women’s success. Women may be more reluctant to negotiate pay, but they are also more likely to face professional penalties if they decide to have children and take disproportionate responsibility for childcare as working moms—to say nothing of outright gender discrimination.

The reality is that even women who have leapt across the “confidence gap” into upper-level management are not always regarded as highly as their male counterparts. How do we know that projecting confidence will pay off for us professionally? And do we really want to create a work culture where women are told that to succeed they must emulate the business strategies of powerful men? …

There is value in bucking up, of course. But the confidence gap argument is also a useful scapegoat for male managers who claim that they simply can’t find qualified female candidates for upper-level positions. Such managers expressed “enormous frustration” with women’s lack of confidence, but feared encouraging them would come off as “sexist” in the Atlantic piece. But we cannot treat a lack of confidence as an involuntary affliction to be tiptoed around, or as an irrational response women just need to get over already.

Amanda Duberman
Excerpt from a Huffington Post article

The argument that women are our own worst enemies in achieving equality with men is exactly backwards. We are not the problem. Women recognize that we are judged based not on competence or results but on presentation. As documented in the article, women excel in school, where we are judged by empirical results of tests, not based on how confident we “feel.” In the real world, women who express their opinions in the “wrong way” are seen as narcissistic bitches or self-effacing weaklings. Either way, we lose.

To solve a problem, you must acknowledge it. This article addresses the wrong problem and ignores the unfair reality that puts women in this position. Call me strident or bitchy, but I am confident that I am right!

Judy Strong
Bellevue, Wash.

Instead of suggesting that women learn from an early age to take their lumps in competitive sports and playground razzing, why not identify male bravado as the more destructive gender-correlated personality dysfunction? Self-questioning, skepticism, and perfectionism are great survival mechanisms for keeping our dumb, imperfect species out of trouble. Do we really want women emulating poker players and race-car drivers, or would society be better off if we dudes took a page from our self-doubting sisters’ playbook?

Skip Griffin
Reno, Nev.

“The Confidence Gap” leaves some interesting implications unexplored. Women’s self-doubt may be a gift in disguise, for it appears to protect them from self-deluding grandiosity—which benefits their workplaces and communities: the authors cite studies finding that “companies employing women in large numbers outperform their competitors on every measure of profitability.”

Perhaps we need to question social norms that reward men for overconfidence. Leaders less prone to overconfidence might have spared us the global financial meltdown, the longest war in American history, and other disasters.

Elizabeth Gand
Oakland, Calif.

While almost everyone agrees that it would be good to have more women rise to the top of corporate leadership, would the evolution of women’s brains so they have the more masculine trait of innate (delusional?) confidence provide the diversity at the top we are seeking? Don’t we really want to increase the representation of women at the top because we value women’s qualities as they are? Would we really be adding diversity to the boardroom or senior management if the only women who rise are those who most exhibit male characteristics?

John Arndt
San Anselmo, Calif.

As a member of the clinical faculty at a leading medical school and a private confidence coach, I’m thrilled to see this report. Ten years ago, I began teaching shy medical students “tricks of the trade” for appearing confident, in the hopes that this would improve physician-patient relationships, patient reporting, and treatment compliance. Early on I noticed that just by practicing techniques for appearing confident, my students began to feel more confident. Confidence can be learned, and it has enormous positive implications for improving lives.

Sioux Messinger
Sonoma, Calif.

It’s interesting to read the evidence as a guy, especially if you’re a self-aggrandizing pundit who covers politics and public life. I almost never see problems caused by underconfidence, but I see (and create) problems related to overconfidence every day.

Much of the recent psychological research also suggests that overconfidence is our main cognitive problem, not the reverse …

So my first reaction when reading of female underconfidence is not simply that this is a problem. It’s to ask, how can we inject more … self-doubt and self-policing into the wider culture. How can each of us get a better mixture of “female” self-doubt and “male” self-assertion?

But my second reaction is to notice that people are phenomenally terrible at estimating their own self-worth. Some Americans seem to value themselves ridiculously too little while others value themselves ridiculously too highly.

David Brooks
Excerpt from a New York Times column

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman reply:

We are gratified by the lively discussion our article unleashed, and find the feedback extremely useful. We should note that “The Confidence Gap” is an excerpt from our new book, The Confidence Code, which addresses many of the issues raised here, including the “structural and institutional barriers to women’s success” mentioned by Amanda Duberman. For this article, we chose to focus exclusively on the gap, and how increased confidence can help women achieve their goals, even when the playing field isn’t level.

By the Numbers

When it comes to speaking up about an Atlantic article, there seems to be no confidence gap: nearly equal numbers of men and women responded to “The Confidence Gap.” (This tally excludes those readers who did not specify their gender.)

THE END OF DESEGREGATION

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, poor black students are once again being sequestered in schools of their own, with devastating effects. In “Segregation Now …” (May), Nikole Hannah-Jones spent time at Central High School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which was desegregated for just one generation.

We were among the first students of Central High School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1979. Because of court-ordered desegregation, the majority-black Druid High and the majority-white Tuscaloosa High were merged into Central.

We read “Segregation Now …” with the greatest sadness and dismay. Only now do we fully understand the extent of resegregation in Tuscaloosa schools.

When Central High opened in 1979, some adults predicted that there would be conflict and even violence. We were teenagers, but we understood the importance of what we were doing. We students would show everyone that we could all get along. We remember the calm guidance of our teachers, who kept doing what they did best, educating us and taking care of us. We remember the feeling of togetherness, which we carry with us to this day. It is a feeling that goes way beyond anything political. It is sad and outrageous that more generations of students were not allowed to share this same feeling.

Michael Chwe, Wendy Dollar, Lillian Fletcher Anderton, Susan Gerald Fikes, Chris Griffin, Jim Holcomb, Dudley Jernigan, Margaret Cone Moran, Alicia Hasson Parr, Vicki Hite Rogers, Atonge Thompson, DeWayne Tooson, and William Whitten
Former Central High School students

Your story took me right back to my own experience in Washington, D.C. After Earl Warren had browbeaten the other eight justices into the unanimous ruling against the "separate but equal" policy of the Topeka, Kansas, Board of Education, we had our choice. Entering the seventh grade in 1954, I was given the choice of the previously white junior high school, Gordon, or the previously black one, Francis. My parents visited both, and decided on Francis for two reasons: (1) its teachers were—unsurprisingly—better qualified than their white counterparts, and (2) it was within walking distance of home, while Gordon was a bus ride away. I was put into the top section of the year, one of the three white students at the school. When it came time for a section president to be elected, a boy leaned over and asked me my name, which he promptly used to nominate me. No other boy sought nomination. On the girls' side of the room, the two white girls were nominated. All the boys voted for me, but the girls' vote was split, so I won. Later, I wanted to kick myself for having accepted the nomination, but it was too late. When I told her about it, my mother said, "Boss white man, eh?"

I'm sad to read that de facto segregation has been such a failure in ending the de jure model against which Brown was ruled. White flight caused much of this, and the rise of charter schools, using public money to fund for-profit education, has really put the icing on the cake.

Michael M. T. Henderson
Lawrence, Kan.

THE MESSY TRUTH ABOUT FEMALE DESIRE

In March, Claire Dederer asked, "Why Is It So Hard for Women to Write About Sex?" She confessed, "My desire is always guessing, often second-guessing," and posited that men experience lust differently than women do.

I cringed when I read the teaser “Why Women Are So Bad at Writing About Sex” on the cover of the March Atlantic. The line implies that this article will finally explain the answer to this consistent and pervasive mystery. The judgment is as sweeping and compartmentalizing as it is untrue, and it smacks of the very over-simplification that the article so precisely works against. Claire Dederer’s engagement with the complexity of writing about desire deserves a better teaser, and your readers deserve a better assessment of their willingness to open a magazine that publishes, rather than hides, such complexity.

Shari Goldberg
Assistant Professor of Literary Studies,
University of Texas at Dallas
Dallas, Texas

We’ve all heard about mansplaining. Now we have womansplaining. How dare you lecture me and tell me that your introspection and sexual perspective is deeper and more profound than mine, just because I’m a man and therefore my libido must be simple? You can’t possibly know what it means to be male any more than I can know what it means to be female, but rather than take the empathetic route of treating other people as equally complex beings with feelings no less valid than your own, you’ve apparently decided that anything you don’t understand about men, such as their sexual selves, must not really exist. The only perspective anyone can speak of with authority is one’s own; don’t presume to speak for all women, and don’t presume to explain to men the inferiority of the male libido.

For some men, sex can be a poetic, transcendent experience. Just because that’s not true for you doesn’t mean this kind of writing is objectively fake. Again, you don’t get to dictate the inner lives of the entire human species and decide what really counts as an authentic description of sex.

Jeff
TheAtlantic.com comment

CORRECTIONS

“The Case for Reparations” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, June) stated that the Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale has an “infant mortality rate of 14 per 100,000—more than twice the national average.” The infant-mortality rate is 14 per 1,000.

“A Better Battery” (James Fallows, May) stated, “In most batteries, lithium ions carry electrodes from the anode to the cathode and in so doing create electric current.” Lithium ions carry electrons from the anode to the cathode.

To contribute to The Conversation, please e-mail letters@theatlantic.com. Include your full name, city, and state.

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