|Rising Above the Gap
Much has been written about the “confidence gap” for women. Many commentators have noted that men often overvalue their strengths while women too frequently undervalue theirs. (Gender stereotyping, of course, which nevertheless seems true.) Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about why women lawyers (and women in general) lack the confidence of their male counterparts. It’s not that difficult to understand how we got here.
Historically, women were made to feel “lesser” or unworthy. When my 92 year-old mother graduated as valedictorian of her high school class, she was told that she achieved that status because the boys “did not apply themselves.” (Sadly, she did not go on to college and realize her dream of becoming a nurse.) When I graduated from the same high school more than 30 years later, the tradition was to include the top five students as speakers in the graduation ceremony. That year the top five graduates were all girls. While I was invited to speak, numbers four and five in the class were replaced with boys lower in class rank. None of us thought to question that at the time. While women have overcome many such barriers throughout the three waves of feminism, we still struggle to confidently aspire to top leadership positions.
A New York Times piece entitled Overcoming the Confidence Gap for Women cited a study on women’s attitudes toward leadership which found that nearly two-thirds of the 3,000 professional and college age women surveyed expressed a desire to become senior leaders. But only 40% were able to envision themselves as leaders. Eighty-six percent of the women surveyed had been taught to be “nice to others” growing up and to do well in school, but less than 50% received leadership lessons. Interestingly, receiving praise from mentors and leaders was the single biggest factor influencing women’s perceptions of themselves in the study, more so than receiving raises or promotions.
I was reminded of this “gap” when I attended a recent event honoring a colleague for her outstanding leadership. She received much praise and adulation at the event. When I emailed her to again congratulate her on this recognition, she replied thanking me but wrote that she “really didn’t deserve it.” But of course she did! And I told her so the next time I saw her. I would like to think that I personally do not suffer from this “confidence gap” but in truth, I probably do. While I strive constantly to be an unapologetically self-assured female role model for my daughter and our students, I occasionally find myself downplaying my own achievements and abilities.
So how do we combat the confidence gap for women in our profession? I urge us all to sing our own praises and those of our women colleagues, gently correct women friends who minimize their achievements, stop apologizing when we disagree or express our opinions, and do whatever else we can to validate women’s successes. When it comes to overcoming women’s confidence gap in the legal profession, we are definitely still “chasing the last wave.” Let’s resolve to rise above the gap and hold our heads high!
This blog was authored by Molly Tami
Molly Tami serves as the Assistant Dean for Career & Professional Development at USD School of Law. She previously designed and taught a course on Law, Gender and the Work/Family Conflict and is passionate about advancing women in the legal profession.