It is very often uncertainty and not mediocrity that holds women back, writes Julia Baird. We should all shun self-doubt and embrace a little white man confidence.
It began with a daily prayer: “God, give me the confidence of a mediocre white dude”.
When writer Sarah Hagi tweeted this as an antidote to impostor syndrome, women nodded in recognition and snapped up t-shirts, bags and mugs the words were quickly printed on.
And it wasn’t just for laughs; it’s a genuinely motivating thought for women who regularly criticise themselves for not being better, or not being perfect.
A friend of mine called me from New York recently, for example, and said she was worried about re-entering the work force after having children and doing TV appearances again, about losing her confidence and making mistakes.
She has a PhD from Oxford, and a professorship at an American university. All I had to do was remind her of how happily her male peers accept invitations to speak everywhere, anywhere, to speak on anything at any time — and when I started mentioning some by name, I could almost hear her spine stiffen.
DAILY PRAYER TO COMBAT IMPOSTOR SYNDROME: God give me the confidence of a mediocre white dude
— sarah hagi (@geekylonglegs) January 21, 2015
When I told her to carry herself with the confidence of a mediocre white man, she laughed — and has reminded me of it often since.
I have had this conversation with female friends many times, and sometimes with myself. Self-doubt is a potent force in the female brain, like a rent-protected occupant that won’t leave even as we grow older, even as we pile up achievements alongside.
Self-doubt can curdle dreams when we are on the cusp of accomplishing them. It is as though, at the very sight of a police car, we pull over and present our wrists for handcuffs, without waiting to find out if we were even doing anything wrong.
Studies have consistently found that men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women do the opposite.
A Hewlett Packard study found that women applied for jobs only when they thought they had 100 per cent of the job requirements, while men applied when they thought they had 60 per cent.
Writing in The Atlantic, American broadcasters Katty Kay and Claire Shipman concluded: “Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in. Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect. Or practically perfect.”
And now so much of our current debate is urging women to hurdle, or at least ignore self doubt — to shoot hands up, write opinion pieces, occupy space, to appear on panels, speak on television, do things we are eminently qualified for but worry that we could be more qualified for. To Lean In.
To carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man.
A woman at the top of her profession, with a string of degrees behind her, came on The Drum recently and was clear and smart and authoritative; tweets flowed in praising her.
She said to me afterwards: “I thought when you called, ‘why should I be on TV? I don’t look like I should be on TV, you don’t need an old lady on there (she is about 50). But then I thought ‘oh well this is how I look and I am always saying more women should step up so I did.”
Not words any of us on the show ever hear from men.
Writing in the Harvard Business Review last week, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, Zoe Kinias, argued that the reason women hold themselves back is because they expect to be stereotyped in public professions.
It’s not about self-loathing as much as recognising situations in which they may not be valued as they should be.
“When ambitious professional women see few women at senior levels (both in the broader business environment as well as in their own companies),” she writes, “they may suspect that women are devalued.
“This can lead to self-doubt that interferes with their performance in the form of stereotype threat, a phenomenon first identified by Claude Steele and Eliot Aronson among ambitious African American college students who experienced self-doubt and underperformed on an exam.
“It has been shown to affect the performance of women in mathematics and to lead white men playing basketball to experience self-doubt. It also has been hypothesised to affect women and minorities at work.”
Zinias recommends a simple exercise whereby women reflect on their own core personal values; this, she has found will boost self worth and close gender gaps in performance.
It is definitely something worth mulling over — if ever nervous about appearing or speaking somewhere, ask yourself who you are, why you are there and what you stand for. Then speak from that place.
Anne Summers, who has been writing about the oppression of women in Australia assiduously for four decades, has just written a new foreword to her seminal book, Damned Whores and God’s Police.
In it, she argues that we have become too focused with measuring change, with “how far we have come”, and have stopped examining what she called the “invisible barriers — “the ways women limited themselves and collaborated with the culture of oppression.”
“We need to resume that conversation,” she says, “because while we might have made major changes and mapped a path to full equality, I am not sure if we have sufficiently reinvented ourselves.”
It’s a very interesting point. And if Zinias is right, it’s not just about reinventing but reminding, or reorienting.
But until we get there, if we dash a bit of white-man-confidence-cologne on our wrists before heading out to work each morning, we can at least be buoyed by the fact that it is very often uncertainty and not mediocrity that holds people back.