Oh “The Confidence Gap.” Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s attempt to improve the lives of women everywhere by explaining how, through lack of self-assurance, women are their own barriers to success has sparked a frenzy about the topic of women’s confidence. I loved Elizabeth Planck’s response: a list of ways to actually help women succeed that includes raising the minimum wage, rethinking leadership values, and perhaps most importantly, not turning one of the most important political debates in the last century (equality) into a pop-culture debate on self-esteem. If this conversation was happening on a live, non-Internet stage, that would’ve been the moment for the mic drop. Boom. Done. Now can we get back to that minimum wage increase? Instead, the hits just keep coming in, and after reading some of the speeches on this now-trending subject from the Ms. Gala, I’m convinced they really, really need to stop.
Amy Schumer did something brave — both kind of awesome and uncomfortable — with her speech. She recounted a painfully awkward sexual encounter in college that proved to be a definitive turning point for her then-all-too-low self-esteem. It was honest. It was a little hard to read. And it was funny — even though I’m not really sure it should have been. I’ve got nothing bad to say about it, except that I wish the question that prompted it would just go away, and that as a result, part of me wishes she hadn’t given the speech at all. It’s the same question that Gabourey Sidibe tackled (and appropriately dodged) in her remarks, and it’s the question every woman has to answer now that our confidence has been questioned. If we don’t admit to falling into the confidence gap, women must now explain how — clearly through some sorcery or trickery, and against all odds — we’ve acquired the miracle of self-esteem. Thanks to ‘the confidence gap,’ the bar has been set, and it’s tragically and unrealistically low.
The only way to rise above the confidence debate is to stop having it. As powerful as it can be to share stories about the moments from which we derive our confidence, it’s more powerful to assert that women, like most human beings, have had their self-worth tested. Or, as Gabourey Sidibe so beautifully put it, “[If] they hadn’t tried to break me down, I wouldn’t know that I’m unbreakable.” Confidence comes with experience, and as long as it always needs to be fed, it will also always be vulnerable. The more we feel the need to belabor the question of female confidence, the more we feed the myth that it’s some kind of male superpower that women can only acquire under special circumstances.
Recently a man with whom I work asked me if I suffered from a lack of confidence, and if that was just a “a girl thing.” It was a simple misunderstanding: I thought, of course, that we had a communication problem. He thought, of course, that I had a confidence problem. It was sexist and sensitive all at the same time — and really difficult to navigate. So yes, the confidence gap can be a barrier to success. And the more we talk about it, it seems, the more likely it is to be one.