I recently participated in an excellent workshop on Gendered Creative Teams, hosted by CEU in Budapest. It was an amazing conference, and I am so glad to have had the opportunity to participate. I’ve included the text of my talk Confidence and Collaboration: A Gender-Based Look at Working Together in the Public Sphere below:
I wanted to start with a brief introduction of myself:
– My name is Sarah
– I know nothing.
Now, when I say, “I know nothing,” you might interpret this in a couple of different ways. For simplicity, let’s start by considering two scenarios:
– Either I actually know something.
– I really don’t know anything.
Most of you know very little about me, so you may feel as though you don’t have the capacity to accurately select between these two options.
But, I am here, and I traveled a long way to get here, so if you’re inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt, you may assume that I have done something worthwhile in my life to earn a place here.
Let’s assume, then, that I do know something.
If that is the case, then why might I begin this talk by saying that I know nothing?
Again, let us consider a few scenarios:
– Perhaps I am exceedingly humble or don’t want you to think me too immodest. Perhaps I feel as though the amount that any one person can know pales in comparison to the vast wealth of human knowledge. Perhaps in recognizing that none of us knows everything, I want to create space so that I may learn from others: learn from all of you.
– Perhaps I find myself stunned to be in a room with so many brilliant and thoughtful people – to be sharing a panel with such great scholars. Perhaps I simply feel as though I know nothing when compared against the outstandingly smart people around me. Perhaps I suffer from imposter syndrome – or, perhaps, I really am an imposter who doesn’t deserve to be here at all.
I don’t intend to answer this question for you.
But I do intend to draw attention to the natural tension between these narratives: to raise questions of confidence, courage, knowledge, and humility.
My broader research focuses on civil society, asking what we – literally you and I, along with all the citizens of the world – what we should do?
Implicit in this question is my focus in today’s talk: how should we act in the public sphere? How should we interact with one another? The exploration of this question is complicated along multiple dimensions of identity and power, but in line with the overarching theme of this conference, I focus today on a dimension that is particularly salient to me: gender.
Traditionally in the western world, women’s voices were not welcome in the public sphere.
I use the term “public sphere” here broadly, and you may take it to mean any interactions which take place beyond an intimate circle of family and close friends: interactions at school, at work, at community gatherings, on social media, and in formal politics. Interactions which are “public” in their contrast to the “private” interactions of the home.
Dating back to Aristotle, a woman’s purpose was confined to the private side of this divide. As Arendt describes, the private life of the household was a place driven by the urgency of life: woman was tasked with creating life and man was tasked with providing for it.
The public sphere, the polis, on the other hand, was a place of freedom. Not freedom in the modern sense, but rather freedom from unequals. It was a place where – for lack of a better phrase – men could be men: surrounded only by their peers and without disruption from those who were lesser: from slaves, from barbarians, and from women.
Entry to the public sphere was only permitted to those who had risen beyond the necessities of life: only to the man who could devote himself fully to the political, unconcerned with the mundane labor of survival.
As Arendt (1958) describes:
To leave the household…to devote one’s life to the affairs of the city, demanded courage because only in the household was one primarily concerned with one’s own life and survival. Whoever entered the political realm had first to be ready to risk his life.
This hardly sounds like a place fit for the delicate sensibilities of a woman.
By the mid-renaissance aristocratic women were joining their male siblings in the study of humanist arts: astronomy, mathematics, Latin, Greek. These were vehicles for human flourishing, necessary for all sophisticates of a refined society. But amongst the many areas of humanist learning, one alone was deemed improper for women to study: rhetoric.
Women were barred from learning or practicing the arts of public speaking, political dialogue, and persuasion. Their voices were not wanted.
The sentiment of this prohibition dates back to the vision of the polis. A woman entering political discourse would disrupt the equity of the public sphere: no longer surrounded by peers, men would have to tip-toe around this out of place woman.
Furthermore, what kind of woman – scandalized minds might ask – would even want to enter the public world of men?
Rhetoric was far from the secluded privacy of the household. It was an engaged battle of verbal combat, a place for masculine sport and swagger. As Bizzell (1992) describes:
The adult woman who entered the arena of rhetorical combat …risked being treated like the only female player in a touch football game: and what chaste women would take such a risk?
This distaste for female rhetors can be seen in the story of Italian humanist and intellectual, Isotta Nogarola. After attempting to enter the scholarly realm of rhetoric, Nogarola was widely debased as a prostitute who indulged in other unseemly activities.
These attacks were justified primarily on the premise: an eloquent woman is never chaste.
As Dillion (2004) notes, in the 19th century, American author Nathaniel Hawthorne stated similar concerns about women expressing themselves in print.
Writing that “the great body of American women are a domestic race” Hawthorne expressed concern about “ill-judged incitements” which turn women’s “hearts away from the fireside.” There is, he wrote, “a sort of impropriety in the display of woman’s naked mind to the gaze of the world.”
Again, we see the gendered imagery of the polis. Women’s proper sphere is domestic; this is where she belongs. A woman entering the public world does so naked; her words expose her – “an irregularity which men do not commit in appearing there.”
Hawthorne’s imagery also invokes classical Greek notions of the public sphere as a place where men fully come into being. As Arendt (1990) describes, in the private sphere, “one is neither seen nor heard by others” – a man’s wife, children, slaves and servants not being recognized as fully human, of course.
Only in the public sphere may a man “appear and show who he himself is.”
Importantly, this process of appearing is also a process of becoming. Through the reasoned exchange of the public sphere, men learn the nature of others and learn the truth of themselves. It is only through participation in the public sphere – through being seen and heard by others, that a person can fully come to be
Thus women’s exclusion from the public sphere – while charitably intended to protect her delicate demeanor, has the consequence of preventing women from becoming fully human in this sense.
Our modern sensibilities consider equality much differently than the Greeks. In much of the western world, it is now generally expected that men and women should participate equally in public life.
Yet, we continue to see unequal participation.
One of the most measurable indicators of this participation is electoral politics – though public office is far from the only way a person can engage in the public sphere.
Across the world:
- Only 17% of government ministers are women (UN Women Report, 2012).
- And the majority of these women oversee social sectors, such as education and health – sectors traditionally tied to home life.
- Just over 20% (20.9) of national parliamentarians are female (UN Women Report, 2013)
And, if you’re curious how this breaks down:
- The U.S. is just shy of the global average at 19.4% (Center for American Women and Politics, 2017)
- And Hungary, I’m afraid, is much lower, with women representing only 9% of Hungarian MPs. (Várnagy, 2013)
What’s notable here is that this disparity is often coupled with a stated openness to female candidates.
- In the states, 75% of Americans say that women and men are equally good at being political leaders. (AP, 2016)
- Here in Hungary, 84% of Hungarians express a similar sentiment (Integrity Lab, 2016)
Given the apparent support for female candidates, then, we may be left wondering why we don’t see more women participating in public life.
One potential reason is hesitancy among women themselves: perhaps they are too shy, too quiet. Perhaps they lack confidence or are otherwise too weak for the hearty, verbal combat of the public sphere.
There’s good reason to think there is truth to this concern. For example:
Hedges – verbal signals of uncertainty such as “sort of” and “maybe” – are used more frequently by women. (see: Hancock & Rubin (2014); McMillan et al. (1977))
Women tend to apologize more than men, indicating, perhaps, that women feel more regretful for their words and behavior. (see: Holmes (1989))
And, furthermore, there is a rich literature documenting `imposter syndrome’ and the `confidence gap’ – findings that show over and over again that women disproportionally believe they are unqualified for the positions they hold or that they achieved their success through sheer luck: certainly not because they are smart or qualified.
As Clance and Imes write in their landmark 1978 paper:
Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample objective evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief.
As psychologists, Clance and Imes naturally study this phenomenon from an individual perspective, exploring the family histories and individual characteristics which lead women to mistake themselves for imposters. They automatically consider the trait as a psychopathy to be treated.
And to a great extent this is reasonable – imposter syndrome causes real anguish and can certainly elevate to the level of neurosis. It should rightly be a matter of concern.
There is some important work being done in this space, but too often, psychological and linguistic studies examining the failings of women – from hedging, to apologizing, to women’s lack of confidence and feelings of impostering – do little to touch on the broader social drivers of the behavior, losing sight of the larger question: how should one properly act in the public sphere?
I don’t mean to discount this narrative entirely. I am – and I’ll go on the record here – entirely in favor of empowering women.
But I find it disconcerting when studies like this are translated into to pop-sci advice like:
• Stop apologizing
• Be more confident
• Assert yourself
The problem I see here is that while researchers have accurately differentiated between the typical, socialized, behaviors of women and men, this advice is blithely translated to the public narrative without first deeply considering what is ideal.
In short, most of this advice amounts to little more than:
• Be more like a “man”
And not just any man, be like a manly man with all the masculine stereotypes of confidence and aggressiveness. Talk over people! Don’t apologize! Assert yourself and stand by your beliefs!
Such advice is problematic.
First of all, we may want to consider how much confidence is actually appropriate.
In perhaps the most relatably-titled academic article, “Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence,” Dunning et al. (2003) argue that people who are poor performers in a field regularly fail to recognize their own incompetence due to a double curse: “the skills needed to produce correct responses are virtually identical to those needed to evaluate the accuracy of one’s responses.”
Those who are most incompetent, then, are also mostly likely to misjudge their own competence, and as a result tend to hold the greatest overconfidence in their skill.
By this account, we ought to be collectively weary of people who give themselves high marks: perhaps some of them are accurately able to assess their own ability, but many others are simply expressing the carefree confidence of incompetence.
…And some of those people may even hold elected office.
Here’s my new favorite statistic: in one study, 88% of drivers rated themselves as safer than the median driver. (see Svenson (1980))
That’s right: 88% thought they were above the median.
To be fair, that number comes from a study of United States drivers, but Svenson found only a slightly lower rate – 77% among Swedish drivers. So this tendency to overrate oneself is not purely an American phenomenon.
So, there’s good reason to think we shouldn’t trust people’s confidence in themselves at all. From this perspective, “be more confident” is pretty lousy advice.
Furthermore, we may want to examine whether typically “male” ways of acting actually achieve the outcomes a group is looking for.
Research on group intelligence has found that groups perform better at various cognitive tasks when:
• Group members have higher “social sensitivity” – which can be briefly described as an awareness of the mental states of those around them
• Discussion is more egalitarian. Groups dominated by a few people perform worse than those in which everyone participates in the discussion. (see Woolley et al (2010); Engel, et al (2014))
Given these traits, then, we should perhaps not be surprised that these studies also find that groups with more women tend to perform better.
The traits which increase group intelligence – reading the needs of those around you and creating space for others to share their voice – go hand in hand with the sort of “feminine” habits which women are advised to drop in the work place in favor of more aggressive and stereotypically male performance.
Again, this seems like pretty lousy advice. Apologizing, hedging, and otherwise not asserting yourself may indeed hold women back in current masculinized environments, but they actually lead to better group outcomes.
Perhaps it is not the women who need to change.
Finally, I want to return to the Greek ideal of the public sphere.
Yes, the public sphere was a masculine battleground; an arena where men strutted their rhetorical skills.
But it was more than that.
It was fundamentally a place to learn. To learn from others and to learn about – and fully become – yourself. Under the classical ideal, the rhetorical combat of the polis was not conducted for personal glory, but rather in service to the greater goal of discovering truth.
Ideal citizens were tolerant gladiators, to borrow a metaphor from Huckfeldt et al (2004).
“Combatants with the capacity to recognize and respect the rights and responsibilities of their political adversaries.”
Given modern gender norms and women’s long-standing exclusion from public discourse, we seem to have lost sight of the ‘tolerant’ part of the vision; restricting our view to merely “gladiators.”
This narrowing – in boardrooms, classrooms, and elected office – is a mistake.
The “combat” of the public sphere may have value: if debate serves to sharpen understanding, then we owe it to our interlocutors to press them on their positions; to find the holes in their armor and encourage refinement of beliefs.
But this combat is meaningless without tolerance and mutual respect – without genuinely inviting our peers to similarly find the weaknesses in our own views.
The goal of rhetorical combat should not be to win, but rather “to find and evaluate arguments so as to convince others and be convinced when it is appropriate” as Mercier and Landemore (2012) write.
The goal should be learn – to learn correct things – and to make everyone wiser from the interaction.
I would further argue that mutual respect is more critical to the ideal than combat. Indeed, this process need not be combative, but can stem from non-judgmental questions of genuine interest: Can you tell me more about why you believe that?
Fundamentally, this process requires humility. It requires entering conversation with the belief that I don’t know everything and that the things I currently believe might be wrong. It requires all parties to enter the public sphere eager to learn.
This need not be a matter of confidence at all, but rather a matter of empirical fact: a single person cannot possibly know everything.
William James (1909) argues that a partial truth is essentially a falsehood, that tearing “the part out of its relations, leaves out some truth concerning it… falsifies it.”
For the network scientists in the room, I put this in more explicitly network terms: with our individually biased sample of nodes, we cannot possibly describe the topology of a full network accurately.
We all have something to learn; and every person we meet has something to teach us.
Given this vision, one of the most damaging things a person can do is to silence another. To do so not only hurts the person silenced, but does a disservice to yourself and to your communities. The process of learning is hindered when all voices and perspectives are not fully included.
And this, perhaps, is what’s most troubling about the current state of affairs.
While women on the whole may indeed be lacking from confidence; that in no doubt stems in part from the many mico-aggressions women experience while participating in public life; the constant, silencing messages that they are not wanted and that their views and voices are not valued.
Here is one of my favorite political cartoons:
It shows a solitary woman in a meeting of men. “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs,” the caption reads. “Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.”
I love this cartoon because it rings so true to me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said something in a meeting only for a man to take credit upon repeating it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been talked over, interrupted, or mansplained to. I cannot tell you how many times it has been made perfectly clear to me – explicitly and implicitly – that my voice is not welcome.
Of course, I tell you all this because it’s not just me.
In deliberative settings, male voices account for up to 75% of the speaking time in mixed gender groups. (see Karpowitz & Mendelberg (2012))
Numerous studies show that women are more likely to be interrupted than men. (see Hancock & Rubin (2014); Hirschman (1994); McMillan et al. (1977))
These constant interruptions serve to re-assert male dominance and reinforce the message that women are neither welcome nor needed in conversations. (see West & Zimmerman (1983); Anderson & Leaper (1998))
So it’s too simplistic to say there is a problem with women’s confidence.
The characteristics so often observed in women of hedging, apologizing, and experiencing self-doubt are better interpreted as the joint result of both public exclusion and private inclusion.
On the one hand, toxically silencing environments make it clear to women that they should be quiet, they should be uncertain, they should be apologizing for the very space they take up in a room.
On the other hand, women’s socialized place in the private sphere gives them skills of listening, nurturing, and genuinely caring about the state of those around them. These are valuable skills in the public sphere, and, as we see in the studies on group intelligence, should be encouraged broadly as critical for collaboration.
This is not to argue that women already have the ideal habits and do not need to change – perhaps they do. But, perhaps, men need to change, too.
My argument here is more general: we shouldn’t be asking how to fix women for the current world – we should rather be asking what kind of world we want and then drawing on our collective answer to inform the skills, values, and habits we would like to have practiced by the citizens of that world; practiced by each of us.
I started this talk by claiming that I know nothing.
I stand by that claim, and I invite you to interpret it however you will.
You may choose to believe that I have too little confidence in myself – that a lifetime of being silenced and marginalized has taken its toll. That I am too meek, uncertain, or quick to defer.
Or you may take it differently: as a bold claim that despite what I know and what I have accomplished I still know nothing in the sense that I still have so much more to learn. That I want, above all, to believe true things, and in pursuit of that quest I am open to the possibility that the things I think I know are wrong. That I recognize the fact that – despite my own, personal experiences with marginalization – I am still relatively privileged as a highly educated, white, cis-gender person. That even I have a responsibility to create space for others to speak.
It feels appropriate to end here with a quote from Erasmus’ satirical essay, The Praise of Folly. In this 16th century piece, Folly herself – a woman, often depicted in in a fool’s cap and academic gown – appears, delivering a rousing oratory and sharply critiquing the intuitions of the day. She concludes:
If anything I have said shall seem too saucy or too glib, stop and think: ‘tis Folly, and a woman, that has spoken.