Credit: © Royalty-Free/Corbis, Kerry Jardine on Flickr, under Creative Commons
(WOMENSENEWS)-- Are books that tell working women how to avoid the traps of low confidence and self-effacement simply aimed at making elite women more powerful?
Or, do they probe real issues that cause most women to stall out in the workplace?
That's the heart of the current disagreement among feminists, which surfaced over the new book "The Confidence Code," by journalists Kattie Kay and Claire Shipman.
Critic Amanda Hess joined the debate with a piece in Slate headlined "Latest Publishing Trend: Books That Teach Women to Be Overconfident Blowhards, Just Like Men." She wrote: "A few years ago, in the wake of the financial crisis, the think piece du jour centered on how overconfident men were a danger to themselves and their country. Now, women are being told to ape these poisonous personality quirks for feminist life lessons. Buy these books and you, too, can become a successful blowhard."
And, on her blog Broadside, Caitlin Kelly posted, "Have you noticed the recent spate of wealthy, white, powerful women -- Arianna Huffington (who refuses to pay writers at HuffPost), Sheryl Sandberg and now Katty Kay (BBC anchor) and Claire Shipman -- selling books telling the rest of us to, you know, man up already?"
We don't think it's fair to say these two "Confidence Code" co-authors or Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, author of the best-selling book "Lean In," are either writing just for the rich and powerful or suggesting that women act more like problematic men.
In examining hundreds of studies for our book "The New Soft War on Women," we found too much research on how women face confidence and self-worth issues at all levels of the workforce. In one classic study, when college-aged men and women were asked if they were qualified for grad school, women with B+ averages said no, while males with C+ averages said yes.
Negotiating Without Force
Recently, a business professor at the University of Texas asked men and women to negotiate their own starting salary. Then she asked them to negotiate on behalf of someone else. When negotiating for themselves, women asked for $7,000 less than the men. But when they negotiated on behalf of another, they asked for just as much money as the men.
If women don't feel they can negotiate forcefully for themselves, but only for others, they pay a double price. First, they don't move ahead. And, second, they may not really want to do so much for others, but feel that as women, they must care because they are supposed to. When that happens, a woman's stress goes way up.
Stereotypes that cause females to hold back affect all women. Young men are twice as likely to have thought about running for office "many times," while women are 20 percent more likely than men to have never even thought of it, finds a recent major study from American University, "Girls Just Wanna Not Run."
And, in elite colleges, the number of women running for top campus offices, the ones that lead to internships and connections, has nosedived. Officials at Princeton have set up a commission to explore the issue.
Some of the criticism of "The Confidence Code" echoes the arguments of female "essentialism." This theory fosters the fiction that women are always more caring, more democratic, better at communication and more moral than men.
We don't need women to become imitation men, but we don't want them to be imitation saints, either. There are a lot of women who want to succeed, who want to climb the ladder, who want to get ahead, and hurrah for them. There is no "one size fits all" kind of woman, as essentialism posits.
In the popular 1986 book "Women's Ways of Knowing," Mary Belenky et al. argue that women are violating their essential feminine natures when they try to lead. They claim that men value excellence and mastery in intellectual matters and evaluate arguments in terms of logic and evidence. Women, in contrast, are "spiritual, relational, inclusive and credulous."
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker picked up on that notion when he wrote in the 2002 book "The Blank Slate" that men are risk takers, but women "are more likely to choose administrative support jobs that offer lower pay in air-conditioned offices."
"What do women want?" Pinker asked. "The ability to have a part-time career for a limited time in one's life; living close to parents and relatives; having a meaningful spiritual life; and having strong friendships."
Science Says Otherwise
None of this squares with science. Men are not inherently less empathetic than women, nor are women more people-oriented, democratic, caring managers. The most effective manager, it's now believed, is the "transformational" leader, an innovative role model who gains the trust and confidence of followers, mentoring and empowering them to reach their full potential.
Psychologist Alice Eagly of Northwestern University found that female managers were indeed more "transformational" than men. But the difference was small: 52.5 percent of females and 47.5 percent of males.
But there is an important difference. When male leaders act forcefully, they are applauded, not critiqued for any lack of niceness and friendliness. Indeed, male leaders can show their warm and friendly sides, without being punished. But forceful female leaders may be met with hostile reactions for failing to be more feminine.
A female Wall Street executive told Eagly and her co-author Linda Carli in their 2007 book, "Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders": "You have to be strong and assertive without offending people. So you push a little and then back off, push a little and back off. You're always testing the waters to see how far you can go, trying not to get angry, trying not be confrontative, trying to think of other ways to say, 'You're not right,' without attacking the person. It's getting more and more difficult the higher I go."
Women don't have to become obnoxious self-promoters, but if they are too meek and self-deprecating, they can be in trouble. Too often, they do the lion's share of the work and achieve success, but men get the credit.
Men Take Credit
Professors Madeline Heilman of New York University and Michelle Haynes, now at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, have found that when a woman and a man work together in a team, credit for the team's success is far more often given to the male team member. A woman's performance must be at the top 20th percentile, and in many cases in the top 10th percentile, to be viewed on par with the average man's performance.
A woman we interviewed told us: "I coordinated and ran the network depot for a nationwide network … and a young male student was given a monetary and certificate award for the work that we did, and I was not mentioned . . . And then he was given the official leadership on the next project."
In "The Confidence Code," Kay and Shipman, well-known journalists, draw on solid research as well as voluminous interviews to set out their thesis. Yes, many of those interviewed were high-powered women, but the issues the authors highlight are also real for women not so high on the food chain.
Sandberg, who urged women to take their careers seriously in her best-selling book, may be hard for average women to identify with. But she did put her finger on a very real issue. Many young women are pulling back from achievement too soon, worried that they won't be able to combine work and family. This behavior could lead them to low-level "mommy track" jobs that, in the end, will give them more stress and less flexibility than better jobs, as research shows.
Women can't deal with all these issues by "fixing" themselves. But they can develop strategies to battle the discrimination all women face, that is often more subtle than the old "in-your-face" bias.
True progress will take a three-pronged approach; with individuals, companies and the government working together to eliminate the barriers that now exist. Research shows that companies with three or more women in top jobs do better in terms of the bottom line than companies that have fewer women. It's a win-win scenario.
Until that happens, women need to know how the female stereotype can dampen their chances of moving up, and they need strategies to overcome the obstacles they will face. A little advice doesn't hurt.