There have been a spate of new books lately advising women how to turn inward, change their behavior, and remake themselves to be more successful and ‘leap over’ gender barriers in the workplace. If a woman is not paid what she is worth, passed over for promotion, or even harassed, the solution, it seems, is to lean in – because eventually (soon, in fact) everyone will realize that women really should rule the world. The latest is a book by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, The Confidence Code, in which the authors argue that the primary barrier to women’s success is not sexism but rather women’s own lack of confidence. And in one way, they are right. Confidence is gendered. Women are less confident than men (and men tend to be over- confident relative to their abilities). Of course confidence matters. But trying to solve a problem of structural sexism with a good night’s sleep, a self-help book, and a smile is a losing proposition.
In their focus on the therapeutic and their emphasis on self-help, these books foster the kind of high-cost, alienating emotional labor sociologists have been writing about since the early 1980s.
These books either completely ignore or actively downplay the structural causes of the confidence gap, including the way that primary schools teach girls that their opinions aren’t as valuable as boys’ opinions.
- Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. 1992. How Schools Shortchange Girls: Executive Summary. American Association of University Women. Washington, D.C.
They also turn a blind eye to the fact that rational actors engage in behavior that is rewarded. Women who show the kind of confidence that men show, and who “negotiate like a man,” are often punished, not rewarded, in America’s workplaces.
- Hannah Riley Bowles, Linda Babcock, and Lei Lai. 2007. “Social Incentives for Gender Differences in the Propensity to Initiate Negotiations: Sometimes it does hurt to ask.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 103(1): 84-103
Thus, authors like Kay and Schipman are encouraging women to fight with the weapons of the weak instead of helping us all to tackle the more difficult task of breaking down the structural barriers to women’s real and durable success.
Penny Edgell is a Professor in the Sociology department at the University of Minnesota. She studies culture, religion, gender, family, symbolic boundaries, and inequality.