Perhaps the clearest, and most useful, definition of confidence we came across was the one supplied by Richard Petty, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, who has spent decades focused on the subject. “Confidence,” he told us, “is the stuff that turns thoughts into action.”
This article explores the many studies that have shown men are more confident than women, particularly in the workplace, and the effects of that confidence gap. It’s smart and thoughtful, and admits that confidence can backfire for women, as it can open them to critiques of being “too bossy” or even “bitches.” It’s definitely worth reading, long as it is. The scientific experiments really add depth and credence to what many of us already suspect from our own observations.
I have two main responses to this article, at least initially.
1) The article understandably focuses on the working world in America as it is, with its implicit, institutionalized sexism firmly in place. This is the America that considers the white male heterosexual experience, when represented in writing, to be “universal,” and relegates the experiences of women, genderqueer individuals, and people of color to their own “special topics” sections of the bookstore.
There is a part of me, an idealistic part, that wants to question and change these very foundations of what our society values rather than figuring out how to play by already-established rules. It’s the old “how to fit a square peg in a round hole” question: do you cut and shape and smooth and change the square peg until it fits, or do you make more damn holes of a variety of shapes?
I guess what I’m saying is that I value humility, preparation, suggestion (as opposed to command), encouragement, and sensitivity. Is it possible that, “Half a dozen global studies, conducted by the likes of Goldman Sachs and Columbia University, have found that companies employing women in large numbers outperform their competitors on every measure of profitability,” precisely because women bring these traits to business?
2) I, like everyone, also want to “succeed” (whatever that means—my definition is basically to make enough money to own pets and travel a bit and still put a little away for retirement). I have witnessed the effects of the confidence gap in my own field, and it makes me angry and sad. I want to be able to tell my female students and colleagues something to help them succeed, to keep them writing their vital work when it feels like the whole world is telling them to shut up.
So I come back to my favorite quote from the article, the main suggestion of the authors: Perhaps the clearest, and most useful, definition of confidence we came across was the one supplied by Richard Petty, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, who has spent decades focused on the subject. “Confidence,” he told us, “is the stuff that turns thoughts into action.”
And I guess that’s my own takeaway from this article: to act. Not to pretend to confidence I don’t have, or to judge myself for not having it, or to buy into the system that values confidence over competence. But to act, as in to take action. To write anyway, even though I lack confidence. To send out my work for publication anyway, even if I don’t believe it will get accepted. To keep publishing books that no one reviews. To keep doing my job the best I can, even though I make 60% of what my tenure track colleagues make (and I’m lucky—adjuncts make 30%, at most).
I will act, though I know the facts and the statistics. I won’t try to be something I’m not, but I will keep going. Why? Because success or not, I do still have to live this life. I have to—get to—make choices, not about how the world receives me, but about what I do, my own actions. And because the last word of that article that got me thinking this morning is “hope.”