LSE’s Professor Shani Orgad explains how ideas about women’s lack of confidence are being used to explain away structural inequalities in the world of work.
A YouGov survey of more than 16,000 adults found that men are strikingly more likely than women to ask for pay rises and succeed. The survey also shows that social class makes little difference as to whether a man asks for a pay rise but makes a big difference for women. In particular:
For adults in middle-class occupations (ABC1 lines of work):
- Overall, 30% have asked for and received a pay rise
- Of men, 35% have asked for and received a rise
- Of women, only 24% have asked for and received a rise.
For adults in working-class (C2DE) occupations:
- Overall, 18% have asked and received a pay rise
- Of men, 22% have asked for and received a rise
- Of women, just 12% have asked and received a pay rise.
These findings confirm that we cannot explain the gender pay gap and gender inequality at work more broadly as an individual problem, or as a personal issue. Rather, the gender pay gap – including the gender gap related to pay increases– is systemic. Its root causes are structural: from the unequal division of caring responsibilities which disproportionately affects women’s work trajectories, through women’s overrepresentation in low-paying sectors such as care, education and retail, which have long been perceived as “women’s jobs”, to sexism which continues to manifest itself in countless discriminatory practices.
And yet, various responses to these latest poll findings frame this structural issue in terms of women’s self-confidence “deficit”. For example, one article cites Anthony Painter, the director of policy at the Chartered Management Institute, explaining that the (so-called) “confidence gap” is real and has “detrimental impacts for pay and progression for women.” Meanwhile, in a recent tweet that went viral, an employment recruiter recounted an anecdote about a woman who accepted an offer that was $45K lower than what the company’s budget would have allowed them to offer her. “ALWAYS ASK FOR THE SALARY YOU WANT (DESERVE)”, the tweet read. The message, reinforced by the accompanying hashtag “#beconfident was clear: if you want equal pay, get confident!
In both the director’s observation and the recruiter’s tweet—as in so many other discussions about workplace gender equality—the emphasis on a “confidence gap” deflects attention away from the structural barriers that create and sustain gender inequality. Rather than criticizing companies’ lack of transparency and the built-in discrimination against women, the notion that women tend to be less confident than their male counterparts and that this is a major—if not the most decisive—factor that stands in the way of their progress in the workplace, turns the blame—even if unwittingly—onto the shoulders of women themselves.
This idea of a “confidence gap” is symptomatic of, and part and parcel of, what my co-author, Rosalind Gill, and I call confidence culture. Over the course of researching for our book of the same name, we noted how, in today’s culture, wherever there is talk of inequality—particularly gender inequality—messages about confidence are never far behind. Women are constantly encouraged to see themselves as held back by internal obstacles and personal deficits, and to “fix” this problem by working on themselves 24/7: by learning to become more assertive, by believing in themselves, by knowing their worth. These messages about women’s self-esteem are now so ubiquitous that their truth value is placed beyond doubt; self-confidence has become a cult. It has become an article of faith that is rarely questioned or held up to critical scrutiny.
Admittedly, some of these messages are well-meaning and can indeed help women feel good (or perhaps even get a pay rise!). Yet the trouble is that they let institutions, organisations, and wider structures off the hook. Precisely as social and economic inequalities deepen and disproportionately hit women—especially poor women and women of colour—women are increasingly called on to believe in themselves and be confident. So, for example, as women suffer sexism and profound inequality at work, including significant pay gaps, workplace schemes designed to promote gender equality respond by offering “confidence training” courses for women. At the same time that Covid-19 and the she-cession have hit women hard, books that exhort women to believe in themselves and build confidence and resilience have topped the best-seller lists: from Untamed and Get Untamed by Glennon Doyle, the American “patron saint of female empowerment”, to former Teen Vogue editor Elaine Welteroth’s memoir/manifesto More than Enough.
It is time to question the “confidence gap” as the common-sense explanation for gender inequality at work. It is time to think beyond confidence by shifting the emphasis from the individualized and psychologized imperative that incites women to overcome their “deficits” and “self-inflicted injuries” by working on and caring for themselves (because no one else will). Rather, we need to ask: what are the structural factors that create an environment where women feel insecure and unsafe? And what resources are needed—urgently—to help build workplaces and a world where all women feel safe and confident, and where women aren’t endlessly told to blame themselves and to change their communication styles, their thoughts, their attitudes, their feelings, the way they hold their bodies, and even the way they breathe?
This article gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the Media@LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.