by Alexa Stevens
In the continuing fight for women’s equality, especially in the workplace, countless efforts have been made to answer the question—just why exactly are there so many more men than women in top positions? In addition to more entrenched patriarchal structures, many analysts have unearthed another cause (and also result) of male dominance of the workplace: the issue of women’s lacking self-confidence.
The first position of my career began, rather fortuitously, by accident. In a series of odd circumstances, luck, and a few majors working in my favor, I landed an internship at Ma’an Network, an independent media organization in Palestine. A few months later, I had signed a one-year contract for a position in the Projects Department, working to fundraise for independent Palestinian media.
In that first year I was required to perform a multitude of tasks I felt wholly unprepared for: submitting large grant applications on a tight deadline without the input of my colleagues; presenting a grant proposal at the last minute in a foreign country; representing my organization in workshops conducted wholly in Arabic. I relied on the direction of my male bosses to undertake these tasks; never volunteering for anything I felt I was not yet ready for.
Sheryl Sandberg told NPR in 2013, “I am not saying that men are too self-confident. That’s not the problem. The problem is that women aren’t self-confident enough.” A May 2014 Atlantic article, entitled The Confidence Gap, utilized studies to prove what many already knew to be true: the issue isn’t that women aren’t as capable as men, rather they don’t believe themselves to be. “Estes’s work illustrates a key point: the natural result of low confidence is inaction. When women don’t act, when we hesitate because we aren’t sure, we hold ourselves back. But when we do act, even if it’s because we’re forced to, we perform just as well as men do.”
As that year progressed, I observed how my male colleagues and superiors responded to challenges, failures, and successes at work. Most men simply absorbed criticism into new work efforts, or changed their course of action, without ever seeming to equate mistakes with their personal capabilities to perform their jobs. My male colleagues, it seemed, had never been told they failed because they weren’t good enough; while I assumed any failure at work was a reflection of my inadequacy, they did not.
A wildly popular Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy offers one way to overcome self-doubt, and though her message is not necessarily directed at women, the technique still applies—“fake it ‘til you become it.” She advocates for multiple methods, including a literal power stance, to trick your brain into believing you feel self-confident. The result is a separation of feelings of inadequacy with actual inadequacy, a concept that revolutionized how I came to relate to my own self-doubt in the workplace.
Since that first year, I have learned the highly technical style of grant writing that would go on to win us massive contracts; I learned to challenge my male colleagues, resulting in a better final product; and I learned that not knowing was not the obstacle to success I imagined it to be—rather, it was the way I learned I was capable. I’ve doubted my abilities throughout, but also saw that simply doing—in a sense, separating the feeling from the action—proved that I could do that which I doubted. Now, finishing my second year at Ma’an, I’ve learned that my self-doubt isn’t always a cautionary feeling telling me to improve (though sometimes it can be)—rather, it is a response to a social and professional climate that was built to value men over women.
In order to fight for women in top management, to see women holding roles traditionally held solely by men, and to receive equal treatment, I had to see self-doubt for what it truly is: a call for inaction in a system of inequality, and not a true representation of women’s abilities. I now know that self-doubt will be ever present so long as the professional realm is ruled by patriarchy—however, I also know that performing in spite of this doubt will advance women, and myself, in the workplace. And that is something worth working towards.
About the author: Alexa Stevens, 2012 Undergraduate Scholar, studied Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic at Tufts University and interned at the American Task Force on Palestine. Since graduating in 2013, she moved to Bethlehem, Palestine to continue working for the rights of Palestinian people. She is currently a project development officer at the largest independent Palestinian media organization, Ma’an Network, fundraising and managing media projects that promote democracy, the rights of women and youth, and independent media.