It’s the workplace, not women’s confidence, that needs fixing
Why aren’t women moving up the corporate ladder? Low self-esteem and impostor syndrome – when plagued by anxiety about being a fraudster – are the reasons often cited by employers and career coaches. And solving the “problem” of women’s confidence in the workplace has spawned a cottage industry of courses and training programs.
It’s all part of a larger cultural trend urging women to “believe in themselves”, according to Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill, the co-authors of a new book, Culture of trust. In practice, this means that organizations can encourage women to work on themselves. Business leaders may avoid introspection and broader workplace issues go unaddressed.
“Every time we heard about inequality [in organisations]you just got to know the [idea of] trust was going to be right behind it all,” says Gill, professor of cultural and social analysis at City University, in a video call. “It’s almost as if inequalities, and gender inequalities in particular, are explained by a lack of confidence among women. It’s letting all these institutions off the hook. And it’s also blaming women.
Along with the rise of trust as an issue in corporate culture, the authors noted the parallel – and seemingly paradoxical – boom in “vulnerability” as a desirable trait at work and in the direction. It was popularized in 2010 by Brene Brown, the academic Ted talks about his research into vulnerability has gone viral and has written several books.
After Brown, in recent years it has become common for motivational speakers to confess to failure or a sense of self-doubt. Orgad, who is a professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics, tells me: “Vulnerability is possible and only permissible to the extent that it can be overcome”. In other words, failure matters if it’s part of a narrative that leads to empowerment.
Gill and Orgad began delving into the culture of confidence in 2015, collecting evidence such as pop songs (“Confident” by Demi Lovato) and the rise of the body positivity movement (which they describe as “the industrial complex of body confidence”) with its social networks. hashtags #selflove, #loveyourself #youareenough. This, they say, is exemplified by the renaming of the Weight Watchers diet company to WW, a wellness group.
They also delved into the booming business of business coaches who promise to boost women’s self-esteem. This cultural trend, Orgad and Gill write, has its roots in self-help, which emphasizes an individualistic approach to life improvement, and also in positive psychology, which they write “represents a dramatic shift from ‘problems’ and psychopathology to one instead focusing on how ‘positive’ psychological states such as happiness, resilience and confidence can be fostered”.
The precursor to the culture of confidence was assertiveness training, popular in the 1980s, which encouraged women to say no and fight back. It was, say the authors, “more focused on surface behavior and language rather than redesigning the whole self”. They also observed a shift in feminist language from “equality to empowerment, brotherhood to friendship.”
In the book, they write that “the obvious value of trust – and in particular women’s self-confidence – has been placed beyond debate, treated as an unexamined cultural asset that is rarely, if ever, questioned. In this way, a belief in trust has come to permeate contemporary culture, as an article of faith.
The culture of trust not only impacts the workplace, they argue, but relationships and parenting. Young girls are implored to be confident and courageous, which generally stems from modern expectations in Western societies that it is the mother’s responsibility not only to act as a role model, but also to nurture the self-esteem of her child.
When Covid-19 swept the world, the pair thought the trust industry might wither. “There was some hope that [the pandemic had] the potential to radically rethink these [approaches]says Orgad. But over the months, the two – who live close to each other in north London and have been on lockdown walks for ideas – have found that the drive to boost people’s self-esteem women was booming. A turbulent job market, furloughs, the demands of remote work, and the added strain of homeschooling provided the perfect conditions for the rise of trusted coaches and virtual workshops.
Not that the two authors are anti-trust. They admit in the book that they are “participants in the cult of trust, for example, repeatedly encouraging our female students to be bold and take their place in the world, and not to apologize or preface their about ‘I’m just’ or ‘I’m not an expert’”.
They want to show, however, that exhortations to be more confident are too individualistic and let organizations off the hook.
I tell them that I was struck by the parallels with employers’ new focus on menopause, the appointment of workplace champions, and initiatives to build the confidence of postmenopausal women. Although this period of life presents real challenges for women struggling with mental fog, fluctuating moods and physical changes, the current corporate approach could be seen as a way to fix middle-aged women at place of ageism.
Others have already questioned the importance of trust at work. The 2019 book by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic Why do so many incompetent men become leaders? (And how to fix it) argues that trait is often confused with skill. As he says in his book: “The result, both in business and in politics, is a surplus of incompetent men in charge, and this surplus reduces the opportunities for competent people – women and men – while maintaining the leadership standards at a depressing level.”
A recent article in harvard business review criticized the concept of impostor syndrome, saying it took “a fairly universal feeling of discomfort, questioning, and mild anxiety in the workplace and pathologized it, especially for women.”
As labor shortages hit many sectors and employers target their resources to rehire large numbers of women who have left the workforce, Gill hopes this timely book will inspire business leaders to s self-analyze, rather than asking women to work on themselves. “It’s not about women’s lack of confidence, it’s about inequality and the undervaluation of women.”