Bad news, ladies: When it comes to career success, confidence matters just as much as plain-old competence.
That’s the big feature story over at The Atlantic this week. Authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman aren’t bringing much new information to the conversation, but their feature serves as a nice summary of everything we already knew—or at least suspected. Men, bolstered by their inability to accurately appraise their own skills or performance, take more risks and end up succeeding more often. On the other hand, women, evolutionarily built to “scan the horizon for threats,” keep their little worker-bee heads down, continuously deferring to others and biding their time until they feel strong enough to run a marathon, thin enough to wear the dress, or competent enough to pitch the boss.
Hang on, it gets even worse. Women suffer from the Bitch Penalty. That is, the common perception that assertiveness in a woman is… unbecoming. Off-putting. Incompatible with femininity. It’s that decades-old “bossy” problem of women being forced to walk the narrow line between love and respect, likability and authority. Authoritative men, so it is said, simply command respect.
It’s worth noting that The Atlantic’s target demo is educated 55-year-old women in affluent households, which is another way of saying: mostly women who went to college but married high-earning men anyway. 99.9 percent of these women would have already peaked in their careers by now; I suspect this Atlantic story is just assuaging their guilt over Leaning Back (typical women, always ruminating over their failures!). The Atlantic is written for Susan Patton’s generation, not the generation of Dunham and Kaling. As the boomers (finally) begin to retire, your next boss may well be a third-waver who went to Lilith Fair. Or at least, somebody who came of age at a time when Lilith Fair was commercially viable.
Now, I’ll grant that there does seem to be a weird confidence problem hidden behind many young women’s resumes. I’ve been there, and while I’m still relatively green in my career, I’ve pulled together some more Aunt Merryweather’s food-for-thought:
Being sharp, capable, and good at following directions (aka easily managed) matters a lot in the beginning of your career. Eventually, your job will probably require that you be able to work without constant feedback, direction, or supervision. Your boss is often too busy with his or her own pile of bull crap to sift through to pay close attention to what you’re doing.
Check in, ask questions, mention your little victories. Don’t have a relationship that occurs 100 percent over email, if it can be helped.
For all my sisters-in-interpersonal-awkwardness out there: Every workplace has a few oddballs. You don’t want to be the quiet weirdo who never speaks and doesn’t have many friends. If you make an effort to be nice, say hello, and don’t let your social anxiety prevent you from being even slightly cheerful. Most people will not care if you’re the source of a lot of stilted conversations and excruciating silence in the copy room, if they know you mean well. “She’s a little odd, but she’s friendly, and she gets the job done.”
Going back to The Atlantic piece: Remember that while the male coworker next to you who asks a lot of dumb questions may well be an idiot, he’s actually smarter than you. Okay, maybe not “actually,” but he’s giving himself the opportunity to learn something from every missed shot. You’re inside your head, practicing theory, while he’s out there just practicing.
Let’s not forget: our economy is becoming a woman’s economy. The soft-skills of social interaction, verbal communication, and emotional intelligence have given women an advantage that they traditionally have not had in the business world. If men are going to have to, as Rachel put it, “woman up,” then there’s reason to believe many of these gender workplace problems – work-life balance, the “pay gap,” and now the confidence gap – might eventually take care of themselves.