Last week, ABC News reporter Claire Shipman and BBC World News American anchor Katty Kay published an essay in The Atlantic called “The Confidence Gap” about the divide in confidence between men and women. The piece is promoting their new book, The Confidence Code: The Science And Art Of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know. The basic gist is that although women have proven themselves just as competent as men in higher education and in the workplace, we struggle with confidence in our abilities (even while men who lack those abilities are assuredly overconfident).
Predictably, these statements have set off a flurry of response pieces. On Al-Jazeera, Alice Driver criticized the book for setting the male status quo as the standard for women (as did Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In). Amanda Hess took a similar tack over at Slate’s Double X blog. Over at Jezebel, Tracy Moore argued there there’s no confidence crisis at all: “It’s just sexism.”
The arguments from all of these women are true. Sexism and the male status quo obviously exist; those are two things that I’ve experienced in my life and reasons why I’m a feminist. But I haven’t seen anyone address yet the way women hold each other back and foster a lack of confidence in each other. What I see happening frequently in the workplace or professional spheres is the “crabs in a bucket” mentality. It refers to what crabs do when they’re trapped inside a bucket together: they climb on top of each other, pulling each other down, making it impossible for anyone to escape. With a scarcity of opportunities and resources, people believe we have to fight for ourselves to get what we want. Instead of banding together against those at the top, we elbow the ones on the rows directly below and beside us.
One way women do this is through the relational aggression of undermining each other’s confidence. Behaviors that are normal in middle-school only get more sophisticated and more stealthily hidden by grownups. Hurtful words are made about our intelligence, our beauty, our bonafides to belinging to a group, or our general worthiness. It’s a fucked up mix of bullying, jealousy, negging and shade-throwing and I’ve seen this happen in communities, in workplaces, and even in families. Settings that you should think would be safe for women and girls be confident, amazing badasses — sororities, feminist groups, all-women offices, mother-daughter relationships — can sometimes foster such shitty treatment that they actually leech confidence from their women. Of course some people are just jerks. It’s hard not to see, though, how women who put other women down are acting out their own issues of unworthiness. If we really felt confident in ourselves, wouldn’t we be able to revel in another woman’s success?
For example, many years ago, I once had a job where I was doing pretty well. I guess I made another one of my co-workers, who was at my same level, pretty nervous. She took me out to lunch one day where I thought she was going to share some big news. But instead, she accused me of slacking off at work. She wasn’t my boss or my manager; in fact, my manager was gobsmacked when I told him what happened. In retrospect, it seems obvious that my co-worker felt threatened and needed to make herself feel better about her own work. Of course people are allowed to feel threatened — Lord knows that I do sometimes. But trying to sink the battleship right next to you isn’t the right way to do it. In doing this, she lost me as an ally.
Another example: I once had a co-worker who used to take credit for my work. I was working as a fact-checker, so our names weren’t necessarily written on everything we worked on. But when the big boss complimented the work on an article that I’d fact-checked by myself, a female co-worker quickly spoke up and took credit for the job well done. She hadn’t worked on it at all! I felt so, so angry. It was a very clear sign that there wasn’t any loyalty from this co-worker and in fact, that I should expect to be undermined by her. She probably felt threatened by a fellow woman — not in control of her own success — and handled it the wrong way. She lost an ally in me, too.
When “crabbing” has happened to me, it has felt like a personal attack. Partially, that’s from being self-centered and assuming everything that’s going on with another person has to do with me. But over time and with more perspective, I’ve been able to see that women who usually aren’t so confident in the first place try to take other confident-seeming women down a peg as a way of coping with their own lives and insecurities. As Shipman and Kay write in their piece, men tend to see temporary setbacks for what they are — temporary — while women internalize temporary setbacks and negativity as evidence that there’s something wrong with us. That’s absolutely how I’ve interpreted relational aggression from other women in the moment, although with 20/20 hindsight I can see the bigger picture.
It’s a shitty dynamic, but ultimately quite sad when you think about it. Patriarchy incentivizes women to pull each other down because we want to be the only woman in the room, or to impress men. It’s not exclusively our fault that we do this, but we at the center of how to stop it. I wish more women understood the power that comes with confidence. There’s power in giving credit where credit is due. There’s power in having someone successful on your team. There’s power in passing along assignments to acquaintances and friends who may do a better job at it than you. Of course, sexist attitudes need to change and policies need to be put in place to make workplaces more fair. But an important component to bolstering women’s confidence is women treating other women with all the respect and fabulousness we can muster so all boats will rise. Not just because we want to toss them a token cookie, but because confident women who do cool things are awesome and theydeserve it. Think of it as an extension of Ann Friedman’s “shine theory” — being a woman around other successful women makes you look good, too. If you’re fortunate, you get friends and alliances instead of haters and competition.
I’m no Pollyanna; I don’t expect everyone to get along all the time, especially when there are situations where women are directly competing with each other for jobs and positions. I also understand there will always going to be family members, coworkers, and classmates we simply don’t like. A true sisterhood is complicated, not in the least because so many racial and economic barriers still exist to separate us. But deep down, I keep hoping. Women, it’s hard enough out there with just the guys being uncomfortable with and threatened by our confidence and abilities. We don’t need it from other women, too.
[Image of “mind the gap” via Shutterstock]