Why leaning in and minding the confidence gap is a help, not a hindrance, to feminism

The thing I love most about blogging is the conversation it inspires. I have a whip-smart blogger friend who responded to my Mother’s Day post about Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s article The Confidence Gap. She wrote,

I don’t disagree with the sentiments in this article, but in general I’m not wildly keen on this new direction feminism seems to be taking, of the Lean In ilk – i.e. the reason women don’t have equality with men is an intrinsic problem with women, e.g. that we aren’t confident enough, or that we don’t “Lean In” enough rather than external factors such as discrimination, workplace policies etc.

i.e. it’s not the system that needs fixing- it’s you.

This kind of thinking is becoming increasingly common and gives a way too easy get out clause for employers and law makers in my opinion.

She shared Jessica Valenti’s article that calls the confidence gap “a sham,” citing it as a good summary of her own criticism of Kay and Shipman’s (and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In) focus on addressing sexism from an internal, confidence-building perspective.

This argument has become very familiar because I’m a woman and I live in the Bay Area and I’ve read Lean In. I’ve had a version of this conversation too many times to count.

Photo by Mark Biddle
Photo by Mark Biddle

I understand the worry that my friend and Valenti and a lot of the feminist critics of Lean In have — shifting our focus to ways that women can/should “fix” themselves blames inequality on women and lets the larger structural forces of inequality off the hook. I see their point. If the whole story isn’t told, then it is an easy way out–if the towering structures of sexist oppression go unmentioned, then discussions like these can easily slip into a 101 on why women are the problem. But doing the equal and opposite–throwing Sandberg and Kay and Shipman under the bus in order to defend a focus on structural inequality–deprives all of us of a revealing and potentially empowering part of this story. And ultimately, it weakens the cause we’re all trying to advance.

The reason I and many other women dig Lean In and The Confidence Gap is because they reveal to us that our chronic self-doubt or perfectionism or shrinking back in meetings is not an isolated personal problem, but rather it’s an individual reaction to a structural problem–a micro symptom of a macro structural issue.

Suddenly, I can see the forest for the trees! I doubt myself because as a woman, I’m constantly being doubted. My talking less and making sure my proposal is perfect and only applying for the job when I meet every single qualification are all fair responses to a system that’s stacked against me. It’s not because I’m a terrible communicator or because I’m an idiot, it’s because I exist within a structure that breeds that kind of behavior.

Feminism is a cause that needs to be championed internally and externally, because its effects are both internal and external. And when we throw out the baby with the bathwater, as Valenti does in her article, we waste the energy of our cause on posturing rather than parsing out the specifics of our disagreements.

Even so, this criticism of Valenti’s is well-founded.

Kay and Shipman dismiss the importance of institutional barriers upfront, writing in the introduction that, while there’s truth behind concerns about sexism, the “more profound” issue is women’s “lack of self-belief”.

Women’s lack of self-belief is a huge effing problem. Is it “more profound” than their earning less than men for the same work or receiving the world’s worst maternity leave? No. But is it a symptom created by the larger structural issue? Yes. And we do ourselves and our cause no favors by leveling such blunt criticism at writers who are analyzing research that reveals the individual symptoms of structural gender inequality. We desperately need to illuminate both the symptoms and the causes if we’re going to cure the disease of sexism.

Maybe it’s because of the radical worldview shift that threw me for a huge loop in my 20s. On any given day, I would toggle my wholehearted agreement between both sides of any major political issue. Because of that experience and the cause of feminism being so near and dear to my heart, I feel particularly defeated when I stand in the midst of all this either/or posturing.

Don’t we all agree that structural sexism sucks and needs to be addressed? Can’t we also gain some liberation from seeing how those structures influence the way we see ourselves and choose to act in our every day lives? This is a case of the micro and the macro both feeding into each other. Pitting one against the other is not productive.

I’m all for addressing the towering structures of misogyny and inequality built into our system. I’ve also felt better and bigger and stronger in my few days since reading Kay and Shipman. I resisted my own urge to over-prepare for a meeting yesterday and was able to think more creatively and on my feet as a result. And instead of saying, “I know a little bit about script writing” in response to an inquiry at work, I replied, “I’ve freelanced as a script writer. I’d love to help.” Surprise, surprise, I’m now on the script writing project. And I love it.

In leaning in and addressing my own internal confidence gap, do I feel like I’m shouldering responsibility for gender inequality and letting the system off the hook? Hell no. In fact, I feel pretty kick-ass and more equipped to go out and deal with all that structural crap.

The cause of feminism will only benefit from sexism being addressed both internally and externally. Let’s support women who contribute to telling the whole, complex story of inequality and throw this either/or thinking out the window.

7 thoughts on “Why leaning in and minding the confidence gap is a help, not a hindrance, to feminism

  1. “Feminism is a cause that needs to be championed internally and externally, because its effects are both internal and external.”

    SO SUCCINCTLY PUT. I love this!

    While I’m commenting, I have an observation to share about the word “profound,” as in: a woman’s “lack of self-belief” represents a “more profound” problem than do institutional barriers.

    If profound just meant “big deal!” or “super important!” then I’d agree that a woman’s lack of self-belief probably isn’t “more profound” than the structural apparatus she’s got working against her. However, “profound” has a different definition – and its definition is, literally, deep.

    So one could rephrase the sentence this way: a woman’s lack of self-belief represents a deeper or more internal problem than do the institutional barriers she’s facing. Which I wouldn’t disagree with.

    Anyway, I love this article. Thanks for posting.

    1. Thanks so much for your elucidation of “profound.” It was profound. And definitely helped me flush out my thinking. That statement of mine kept gnawing at me, and you helped me to understand why.

  2. Thanks for another great essay. I, as a male, am so disheartened to see how little progress has been made with equality in economics, political positions and in general society for all females during my almost 70 years.

    It’s shameful.

    I don’t take anyone’s opinion seriously when their philosophy is all based in bumper sticker jingoism….i.e. Lean In, Tiger Mom, etc.

    That said….while not as obvious or perhaps not as widespread, talk to a few men to see how we, too, are measured by impossible standards.

    Make sure to include some gay men in that survey to see an even more broad problem.

    There is no comparison of any negative situation a male finds himself in to what females are forced to deal with and often endure on a daily basis.

    This is not a competition to see who suffers most.

    Recently I watched a marathon of the 70’s TV show Maude. While greatly entertaining and witty, all of the issues of those days are still troublesome in current times.
    Sure, some progress has been made but racism, sexism, homophobia, machismo, environmental destruction and stupid politics are still with us in mutated and sadly greater forms.
    That marathon was followed by another wonderful show of yesteryear, Golden Girls. Advertised for the near future is another day featuring the TV show Designing Women.
    All of these shows featured strong women dealing with all the crap we once considered as of just that time and place.

    Well, it seems that ain’t quite true.

    The only solace I can muster is that maybe, just maybe, the youngsters coming up will make larger changes in our society. Of course, that has been the wish of one generation after another….living in a fools paradise.

    Moving on, here is a link to an article I know you and your readers will identify with…and find some comfort. Certainly worth passing onto the folks you all socialized with pre-baby.


    Carry on.

  3. ….one more thing. When you go to the link I pasted above, be sure to read the comment section.
    A variety of interesting experiences and how they were dealt with.

  4. Wow, what an interesting read! I’ve not encountered The Confidence Gap or Lean In, but from what you’ve written I think I would have a similar reaction to your friend. Thanks for challenging me to examine both sides.

  5. As the father of two girls, I’ve always found it tricky to balance this message of – you gotta believe in yourself and fight for what you believe in, with don’t expect or accept anything less than equal. If I’m too assertive or pushy with either argument, am I part of the problem (this has yet to stop me 🙂

    My biggest lesson or insight with this and other similar false dichotomies, that claim it’s all one or the other is to question them ceaselessly. Still learning. Thanks for writing this – will share with my daughters.

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