The most recent research laying waste to the claim that women’s lack of confidence accounts for their failure to break the glass ceiling comes from Alison Wynn, a research associate at the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab, whose paper, Pathways toward Change, was published this month in the influential journal Gender & Society.
Wynn’s research found that employer programs that aim to address women’s lack of confidence through mentoring place the blame for women’s inequality – and the responsibility for addressing it – on individual women, rather than structures, which ultimately makes them ineffective.
“They’re rooted in the belief that if … women can be taught to behave more assertively and demonstrate valued skills (through mentorship), then perhaps gender inequalities can be reduced,” Wynn wrote in an article about the research for the Harvard Business Review. “But this thinking fails to do one important thing: hold the organisation responsible for the role it plays in causing inequality.”
This new study builds on research published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Grainne Fitzsimons, a professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Fitzsimons looked at the effects of so-called “DIY” approaches, which posit that women can solve the problems of workplace inequality themselves and that they should be the ones to solve them.
Fitzsimons hypothesised that this could risk leading people to another, more dangerous, conclusion: that women are to blame for their inequality.
Fitzsimons found that emphasising individual female empowerment diminished people’s understanding of, and support for, the kinds of structural changes needed to address women’s inequality. He and his colleagues concluded: “Empowerment advice for women provides an illusion of control that’s not realistic”.
In short, not only does “DIY” thinking amount to an elaborate victim blaming con, it actually prevents us from acknowledging and addressing the real drivers of workplace inequality, including entrenched structural biases.
Research actually shows women feel just as confident as men. The problem is, they are punished when they display that in the workplace, where men are rewarded. Research conducted by three European business schools, published last year, found that unless women “temper their assertiveness” with more stereotypically feminine traits like empathy and altruism, confidence alone won’t advance their career. What’s needed, it seems, is a bit of what Law Professor and author of the book What Works for Women at Work, Joan Williams, calls “gender judo”.
Marketing for The Confidence Code for Girls suggests: “Girls can rule the world – all they need is confidence”. But women and girls are not the fixer uppers here. We need to transform our workplaces and culture into the kinds of places where they can thrive. Anything less is the same old double standard with a fresh coat of paint.
Kristine Ziwica is a Melbourne-based columnist who has 20 years’ experience working in Australia, the United States and the UK on human rights and gender equality campaigns.
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