If you work for a public agency, large corporation, or a progressive small or medium-sized organization, you’ll know that International Women’s Day is coming up. In anticipation of this, I’ve seen a lot of internal communications on diversity and inclusion in my own organization.
This includes a story on a book by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay that we’re encouraged to read, titled The Confidence Code. The book explores whether confidence is a product of nature or nurture; whether people are genetically predisposed to self-confidence.
What they’re talking about, of course, is why many women struggle to accept themselves, express their views, and promote themselves. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book. From the synopsis, however, one can gather that the book concludes that some individuals might be genetically predisposed to self-confidence, but it can be learned. I think this is just common sense. Brains are incredibly elastic, with quite a bit of individual variation. We inherit traits from both males and females in our lineage.
However we got here, women who struggle to accept and assert themselves must make a choice at some point if they’re to break the cycle of self-doubt. We have to decide that we’re worth it, that not only do we have something to offer others, but more importantly, we have something to offer ourselves. We have innate value. Men can continue to be arrogant and dismissive, but we can be sure that unless we push back, they’ll take advantage of our acquiescence. So whatever else happens, it’s critical that women encourage each other to stand up.
As well meaning as it might be, though, self-help discourse usually fails women and girls. When Shipman is asked, “What did you find is one of the biggest things women do that undermines their self-worth or self-esteem?”, she responds:
We don’t let go. And that undermines how others see us. I remember doing an interview and after it was over, thinking that I had asked a stupid question. Later that evening, that thought was still swirling around in my head. We can let a doubt go round and round in our heads til it can literally drive us crazy. It can be debilitating and is an enemy of self-confidence.
We don’t let go?! This plays right into the hands of every man who’s ever accused a woman of nagging or overthinking. Before we can explain why women have developed this pattern, we need to identify it accurately. It’s no accident that so many women beat themselves up about insignificant mistakes and never feel like they’re good enough. It’s not natural for women to hate themselves. We’ve been taught to feel this way about ourselves and other women by extension. It’s called internalized misogyny. We’re represented as headless bodies and objects of male conquest and control, and treated like ancillary beings, barely human. We’re treated like shit because we’re women. Is this really a revelation?
Millennia of male domination have entrenched this system, and men continue to uphold and benefit from it. Does Shipmen think we hate ourselves just because? Or we’re masochists? That we’re foolish? Weak? That sometimes we’re given the wrong cues for no apparent reason?
There’s no mystery here. This world makes no secret of the fact that women are hated. It’s no wonder that women implicitly understand that they’re screaming into the void. They know that they can embrace a few masculine personality traits and that might win them respect and advance their careers. But it could just as easily be construed as a threat, and they’ve been punished for violating the strictures of femininity before. Why should they trust that it’s safe to be themselves now? What’s changed?
It all starts the moment we’re born and is reinforced consistently throughout our lives in every social space, from every angle, until it’s so ingrained that women believe we’re somehow born this way and men don’t need to change.
In the article, Shipman acknowledges that some messages aimed at girls are part of the problem but then goes on to say:
Teaching a child to accept and even embrace struggle, rather than shy away from it, is a crucial step along the path toward instilling confidence. You are showing your child that it’s possible to make progress without being perfect.
This is where she loses me. Girls don’t need to be taught to nobly embrace struggle. They already know how to do that, and they do it well. Too well, in fact. The problem is that females face the struggles they do because they’re female, and that boys and men treat them the way they do because they know they can. Girls are amazing. It’s boys who need to be taught how to deal with conflict, not to lash out at others, respond with violence, or become numb to the pain of others – girls especially.
The key lies in Shipman’s gender-neutral language: “teaching a child”, “showing a child”. Teaching which children what? We need to get right down to the root of the problem. Unfortunately, the only women who are embraced as experts and deemed worthy feminists have a tenuous grip on the issue. They don’t threaten the system, which is why they’re given a platform.
Meanwhile, everyone goes on pretending that things are getting better, that if only girls and women would somehow realize they can liberate themselves, everything would be fine. But the first step to liberation is understanding.
With each passing IWD, I see society crawling toward this radical awareness and I wonder how we’ll ever get there at this rate. The greatest obstacle to progress is the illusion of progress.