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The Confidence Code Review

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Women have a reputation as over-thinkers, worriers, and less aggressive than men. Some of this is tied up in traditional ladylike virtues: demure, quiet, coy, and passive. But Katty Kay and Claire Shipman focus on this as a negative thing, that women lack, comparatively at least, a crucial fruit which men tend to have in greater quantity: confidence. They attribute much of the lack of women in higher roles of governments and business to this lack of confidence, urging ways to help build confidence in women, confidence as a definable trait which is a positive thing in of itself, a skill which is often more important than just competence for advancement.

There’s no doubt that the confidence code makes a compelling case for statistical differences between men and women: repeatable studies on tests for example, show that women have more self doubt and are more hesitant than men. And the same can be said about a host of examples and verifiable behavior differences, from how often men ask for salary raises vs. women, to how confident they are in their own abilities. Certainly, there are plenty of highly confident, outgoing women (even if women often judge each other and are judged more harshly for “pushy” traits than men), and lots of shy, anxious men, but as a general rule men are less inhibited than women.

But what is striking in the book is how much it feels like jousting at windmills or fighting with strawmen. There are plenty of interviews with women on the subject of their relationship to confidence, invariably highly successful, prominent women, described in glowing terms. Crystal Langhorne, a professional woman basketball player, Kirsten Gillibrand, a senator, Linda Hudson, General Dynamics CEO, Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF. But men’s voices only appear in scientific roles. The bravado that it ascribes to men hardly seems to match my ideas of confidence. I can only speak for myself, but I certainly don’t brush aside failure or never feel hesitation: it has taken work to not feel guilt. I generally think of myself as reasonably confident, although perhaps I’m wrong: it is a hard thing to objectively judge. I can’t help but think that interviews with men would reveal many of the same concerns and fears. Men are written about as a cohesive whole, when genetic variability points out men have more diversity than women - for example, there is a more sharp distribution among men than women when it comes to IQ, with more both smart and stupid men. I wouldn’t be surprised if men were the same, broadly speaking, when it comes to confidence scale, and men shared many of the same concerns as women - just that there are more men who are very confident, and also more who are terribly shy.

It also only details one side of women’s world too: the world of politics and business. What of the social world, the private world, the domestic world? Does this lack of confidence or timidity apply to other parts of society? Women are given a passive role, both traditionally and to some extent still in practice in this, and I think it likely that this is a major, and unmentioned side, of the confidence gap. Consider things such as dating and sex: men are the ones who are supposed to seek out and initiate relationships with women, while women are the passive recipients. This has plenty of exceptions of course but as a rule of gender norms and expectations it seems perfectly reasonable to assume it as a general principle. This both requires more confidence on men’s part and also calls for greater caution on the part of women, fairly or unfairly, in light of contemporary social expectations and evolutionary inheritance. If women were impulsive like men they would encounter problems in evolutionary terms, like pregnancies. Even in modern societies women tend to have more to fear from bad partners than men. Women have to place greater resources into things like childbearing than men, and have more to fear in social life, and yet also have less need to be confident and outgoing. The book only deals with traditionally masculine spheres among high performing, elite women, and largely ignores evolutionary history and other spheres of society.

It also ignores comparison to other systems which achieve a greater rate of gender equality: consider the Scandinavian countries, famous for being very egalitarian and having a high degree of female representation in politics and other high echelons of society. Scandinavia is also defined by a tradition of leveling - to raise up the underperforming, to push down the high performing, and that its people tend to be less outgoing and more withdrawn. Isn’t this a good comparison of a society which takes a different approach to confidence and social interactions than the United States, and ones like this would serve as a viable comparative model?

It isn’t that Scandinavian social mores need to be adopted in the US, but what is striking with the book is that it confronts what it defines as a major, society-wide issue - women having a different approach to confidence that can be termed as a lack of confidence, one which penalizes them in many areas of society - and then it only proposes very individual solutions. What a lack of ambition and extraordinary application of what neoliberalism today generates - an inability to conceive of collective social actions, and instead that individuals themselves must simply adapt to market or system logic.

What matters is putting women into positions of power, without caring about what they do there: the authors interview female US senators or IMF director Christine Lagarde, praise them, but barely comment upon their actions. I personally do not care about how many US senators are female or if the IMF director is a woman: I care about what actions they carry out, if the US senators and IMF directors improve life for average people. The most crass form of the “Girlboss” ideal comes out of this book: that as long as women are fairly represented as CEOs of fortune 500 companies, life is good, regardless of the suffering of their workers and employees. If it is a women who is in charge of the company forcing other women into sweatshops and paying them poverty wages, then that is a Good Thing.

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Certainly, the book has some interesting points about genetic differences between men and women and the way confidence is expressed in both. But it never stops to ask why these differences exist, or to examine how they might seriously be changed beyond simply presenting high powered women leaders as models that the rest of us should follow. Its analysis is in the end, a skin deep one which only really makes sense in the corporate diversity which is safely unthreatening to power and injustice.

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