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Women: the long road ahead

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The Problem With Confidence Men

How Katty Kay and Claire Shipman get it wrong on women and overconfidence.

Rosa Brooks  (April 22, 2014)

If you happen to be a world leader, and you happen to attend one of those world leader powwows to which the rest of us usually aren’t invited (the opening festivities of the U.N. General Assembly session, for instance), and you happen to look around at your fellow world leaders, you might also happen to notice that most of your fellow world leaders are fellows.

According to U.N. figures, women made up only about 10 percent of all heads of state in 2013, and, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, women constituted only about 17 percent of all government ministers in 2012 and 22 percent of all parliamentarians worldwide as of February 2014. In the United States, only 20 percent of current cabinet secretaries are female, along with only 18.5 percent of all current members of Congress. A few rungs down the ladder, men continue to outnumber women: Women hold only one-third of federal senior executive service positions, for instance, and in the national security and foreign-policy agencies, the figure is even more skewed toward men.

Since women make up 51 percent of the world’s population, all this raises an obvious question:

Why don’t women run the world — or at least 51 percent of it?

Good question! In answer, you might be tempted to start muttering about the lingering effects of centuries of sex-based discrimination or the lingering existence, in some quarters at least, of good old-fashioned sexism. You might also add a scowling commentary on the scarcity of affordable, high-quality child care, the absurd demands of the 24/7 workplace, the «second shift» of housework and child care most women still do when they get home from their paid jobs, and the cultural expectations that steer women away from traditionally male roles such as leader of the free world (or even chief of staff to the leader of the free world).

But you’d be wrong. Or at least, according to veteran television reporters Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, you’d be missing the deeper underlying reason for women’s «continued failure to break the glass ceiling,» which is «something more basic: women’s acute lack of confidence.»

In the cover story in this month’s issue of the Atlantic, Kay and Shipman offer a lengthy excerpt from their just-published book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know. Few women make it to the top, they argue, because women generally underestimate and undervalue their own skills and expertise. They’re less likely than men to ask for raises or negotiate about salaries when they get job offers, and even when the objective evidence suggests that they know as much as or more than their male peers, women still express less confidence about their knowledge. As a result, they’re less likely than their male peers to apply for promotions: Women won’t apply for promotions unless they believe they meet 100 percent of the qualifications for the job, while men will if they think they meet even half the qualifications. The problem isn’t that women are locked out of top jobs, say Kay and Shipman — it’s that too often, they simply take themselves out of the running.

Up to a point, Kay and Shipman have a point… MORE

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