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We’re Way More Confident Than You Realize, Gentlemen

Charlotte Ashlock Posted by Charlotte Ashlock, Executive Editor, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Charlotte Ashlock is a crazy idealist trying to make the world a better place! 

We’re Way More Confident Than You Realize, Gentlemen

Telling Women "Be More Confident" is Patronizing

Every week I see a new article: women in business— how can we build their self-confidence? Personally, I can’t sip that bland, watery cocktail of pity and condescension, without wincing in disgust. When we ask ourselves why women’s rank and pay falls short of men, we need to look beyond the traditional answers of self-doubt and sexism.

My mother (Wendy) and her mother (Marjorie) are two of the most confident and intelligent women I know. Yes, they made life choices which prioritized their husband’s careers. But when I think about some well-intentioned person slapping them on the shoulder and saying, “You really have to build up your self-confidence, honey!”…. I can just picture their expressions of deep yet subtle irony. It makes me laugh so hard, I have to hold my stomach.

Grandmother Mother Me

Women's failure to ask for more respect and money?  It's NOT a confidence issue

I’m a chip off the family block, when it comes to confidence. But I’m not behaving the way the media says a “confident” women should behave. I’ve only applied for promotions when urged to by my boss. I was deeply shocked when I found out a friend had dared to negotiate her salary. My husband thinks I should be more concerned with money, rank, and climbing the ladder. So I’ve been asking myself— why doesn’t it come easily to me?

The narrative I’ve been taught to live is the “wise mother” archetype. In other words, I aspire to be a powerful caregiver for my community. External validators like money and rank are okay, but they don’t really feed my ego in a meaningful way. Instead, what makes me feel important is being able to take care of the people around me and get them what they need.

The problem is, if I’m the wise mother, who is the child? Many women think of men as childlike. When women defer to men, they are not necessarily acknowledging male superiority. The woman might be thinking, “Oh dear, I might as well give this poor man what we wants. He’s immature and insecure; he needs the social status more than I do. I’ll just let him bluster on and have his way.”

You can often see this attitude in a woman’s face, when a man interrupts her. Is she feeling crushed and unworthy? No. If you are watching closely, you might see the barest flicker of a tight, ironic smile. Then she quickly adjusts her expression of fake interest, allowing the mansplaining man to bask in the glow of her attention.

Toxic femininity? As dangerous as toxic masculinity.  

The problem is, viewing ourselves as caregivers for the foolish manchildren, is insulting to men and damaging to ourselves. If you always expect yourself to be the most mature person in the room, the person who smooths things over, and makes sacrifices for “the team,” you get drained over time. Constantly being self-sacrificing is an example of toxic femininity.

You may be familiar with the concept of “toxic masculinity,” the idea that men are obliged to fight everything in sight. Toxic femininity is the other side of the coin; the idea that you have to take care of everything in sight. Standing up for yourself and caring for others, both good activities on their own, become “toxic” when they infantilize others. Don’t infantilize women by assuming they can’t fight, or infantilize men by assuming they can’t be wisely nurturing.

It's not our low opinion of ourselves-- it's our low opinion of men

When women stop speaking up in meetings, have they lost confidence in themselves? I think more often, they’ve lost confidence in the ability of male colleagues to be smart and mature enough to realize the validity of their points. They think the men are too childish to respond productively to feedback, so they stop offering feedback.

The root of our gender inequality and discord is not so much the “damsel in distress” stereotype (which we have made great strides to fight) but the “manchild in distress” stereotype. Just as a damsel in distress must be rescued from physical danger, the manchild in distress must be rescued from his own emotional immaturity. The damsels in distress lack muscles— but the manchildren lack emotional intelligence, and must continually be redeemed by the “good-hearted” women. I can’t begin to number the books and movies which feature this manchild trope.

There is much recent media that aims to intentionally subvert the damsel stereotype— like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the blond cheerleader who kicks ass. But even as hundreds of karate-chopping, arrow-shooting women glide across our screens, a young man who is at peace with his own emotional world, and able to bring peace to others, is a rarity in media.

Women don't need to change themselves, men need to change

Let’s fight the “manchild in distress” stereotype. Because— how unjust is a conversation about inequality that always begins with, “What’s wrong with women?” I’m tired of reading all the articles that ask me to change my values and personality. How about I turn the tables, and ask men to change their values and personality instead?

My requests for the men

This is my call to action for men: stop using the “manchild in distress” stereotype to your own advantage. Here are three real-life examples of how to step back from the stereotype and assume responsibility.

  1. When a female coworker gives you feedback that upsets you: don’t ask her to comfort your wounded feelings. Don’t lean on her to apologize for being “insensitive” to you. You are responsible for your own feelings. Pressuring the women to be caregiving is your way of dodging the feedback. 
  2. When a woman expresses emotion, don’t call it “unprofessional.” What you mean by that, is that you expect women to make your life easier by expressing only positive emotions around you. 
  3. Don’t take it for granted that female subordinates must listen to your long stories where you complain about your life. You don’t need female help, to make yourself feel better.

In other words: men, stop playing up your own helplessness when it comes to emotional and domestic self-care. Men: you are just as capable of domestic and emotional maturity as women are capable of logic and math. In other words, if you are in your twenties and you “don’t know how to cook,” learn right away. You are capable of caring for yourself as an adult!

And hey, sisters-- 

Women, stop giving in to the ego-boosting temptation to "rescue" the foolish men. If you don’t let them rescue themselves, they’ll never learn. Maybe step back from the “wise mother” role and view yourself as more of a sibling. In other words, stop being so confident, ladies. Let someone else be the most mature person in the room for once. They can do it.

Liked this blog?

This blog is the first post in a series, "Conversations in Feminism," hosted by Charlotte Ashlock and Anna Leinberger, the female editors at Berrett-Koehler Publishers.  If you don't want to miss the next post, make sure to subscribe right away!   Anna's up next. Here's a teaser from her post: 

"Feminists have been trying to get men to stop putting women “on pedestals” through decades of feminist thought. The obvious reasons- that women are flawed humans, and can never live up to the pedestals they have been placed on- is only one piece of the story.  Ultimately.... a pedestal is a trap!!!!"


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About the Writers

Anna and Charlotte work together in the editorial department of Berrett-Koehler Publishers.  In some ways their opinions on feminism are very similar, and in other ways their opinions are very different.  The conversation between the two of them got so interesting, they decided to take it public.  Conversations in Feminism will be a series of letters they write to each other on feminist topics; sign up below to watch the fun unfold.  Anna and Charlotte also want to hear from other voices, so please submit your own thoughts to [email protected] for a chance to be included in the series. 


Daniel Ashlock

Excellent article.  I acknowledges and exposes techniques of manipulation in both directions and scrapes a good weight of nonsense off the windshield of life.  Respect!

March 10, 2016