(This piece appeared on RSA Comment on 7 March 2011, in anticipation of International Women’s Day)
As if women don’t agonise enough already about our career shortcomings, The Sunday Times dished out a real zinger recently. Just days before Lord Davies was to table his report on how to increase women’s presence in boardrooms, the newspaper reported that research from the Institute of Leadership and Management suggests the glass ceiling is a figment of women’s imaginations. It turns out the real obstacle to our career advancement is – you guessed it! – ourselves. Crippled by self-doubt, modesty and a lack of ambition, we sabotage our own working lives which – the article implies – the men around us would be delighted to help us progress if only we’d let them.
Now it’s easy to be scornful of these claims, and when I read them my head began buzzing with ‘buts’. After all, it’s a logical fallacy to claim that women’s self-doubt means a glass ceiling doesn’t exist. Still, I’m pretty circumspect about this sort of thing. I have three sisters and lots of women friends, and I’d be lying if I denied that fear, embarrassment and anxiety about being ‘nice’ often prevent us from putting ourselves forward.
A few years ago I read a book called It Takes a Candidate about why so few women participate in American politics. Here in the UK, try watching a parliamentary debate and see how long you can stomach the shrill finger-pointing, tiresome bluster and jokes that aren’t actually funny unless you spent your youth indoors deprived of natural light, but which are guaranteed an approving snort from your mates. Not a very tempting buffet.
The American book, which was based on thousands of interviews with both men and women, provides a more scientific view. Asked whether they’d consider entering politics, even highly accomplished women who’d graduated magna cum laude from Ivy League colleges and ran successful companies said they were not nearly qualified enough. Conversely, most of the men who were interviewed, from taxi drivers to school teachers to company heads, didn’t just think they could enter politics. They thought they could be President.
I can’t say I was surprised. In her book In a Different Voice, published close to three decades ago, the Harvard researcher Carol Gilligan set out to understand girls’ moral development. In doing so, she stumbled upon a related phenomenon: the collapse of many girls’ self-confidence as they entered their teens, struggling to navigate ethical dilemmas without the risk that their ‘selfish’ choices might jeopardise their relationships. Depressingly, this latest bit of research shows that whilst young women continue to outshine their male peers academically, these achievements contribute little to affirming their right to pursue their desires.
What’s equally dispiriting here is the relentless lack of curiosity about the causes of these phenomena. Instead, the usual fuzzy biological claims about gender are trotted out. For instance, The Sunday Times suggests that women’s ‘greater innate aversion to risk-taking’ is to blame for their stalled careers, and treats the punitive effect of having a family on a woman’s career as a neurotic projection rather than a well-documented fact. Of course, the beauty of this approach isn’t hard to discern. Far easier to blame women for their lack of advancement than to look at the social policy implications it raises, or indeed to scrutinise the messages we give our daughters.
In fact, the basis of self-confidence is rather complicated. One startling finding that emerged from the recent furore about Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother book, a memoir of the writer’s dominatrix-inspired parenting style, was the disconnect researchers observed between American students’ confidence and their academic scores. As Elizabeth Kolbert put it wryly in The New Yorker, ‘[j]ust about the only category in which American students outperform the competition is self-regard.’ Conversely, said Kolbert, ‘even the least self-confident Singaporean students, on average, outscored the most self-confident Americans.’
Now would anyone seriously argue that this dramatic difference in confidence between American and Asian kids reflects biologically determined racial characteristics? Highly doubtful. And yet when girls are less confident than their achievements warrant, we’re told it’s an inescapable fact of their gender.
Just as I was digesting these thoughts, I discovered a rather uplifting little piece on The Good Men Project website. Writing about the ‘princess culture’ in which so many young girls wallow these days, Hugo Schwyzer tells us about a new book by Peggy Orenstein which claims that this innocent obsession and the response it elicits from their families tells little girls that they will be judged first and foremost on being the ‘fairest one of all’.
‘This may be true,’ Schwyzer asks, ‘but how is it our problem as men?’
According to Schwyzer, telling your little angel she’s the prettiest girl in the world might make you both feel good, but it’s also the first in a series of messages that tell her looks are the key to approbation and attention. Then, says Schwyzer, when your little princess sees Daddy ogling teenage cheerleaders at a football match she begins to understand the mechanics of men’s approval. In this context, Schwyzer urges other men to think about how they respond to their daughters, and the lessons they implicitly teach through their attitudes towards women.
Of course, I can already hear the derisive howls from the ‘blokes’ over at Top Gear desperately nursing the dregs of their own testosterone. Indeed, it’s always chilling to read the sneering misogyny that invariably informs anonymous newspaper comments on stories about women’s advancement. Nonetheless, if I were a father I’m sure I’d be heartbroken to see my lively and outspoken child lose her nerve on the eve of adulthood sabotaging her own aspirations. And most of all, I’d want to know what I could do about it.