Carlos Osorio, Associated Press
General Motors CEO Mary Barra, left, is conferred an honorary Doctor of Engineering degree by Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman, before addressing the University of Michigan graduates at a commencement ceremony Saturday, May 3, 2014 in Ann Arbor, Mich. Barra, the first woman to lead a major automaker, took the top spot at GM in January.
Only 4.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, according to the nonprofit organization Catalyst.
While there are those who argue against the existence of a wage gap at all, Catalyst, whose goal is to “expand opportunities for women and business,” found that in the first year after their college graduation, women working full-time earned $35,296, compared to $42,918 for men.
Some recent studies and publications are suggesting that the reason there aren’t more women in leadership positions and highly paid jobs is a general lack of self-confidence, which holds women back. Others have countered, however, that any inequalities between men and women — and the lower self-confidence that might come with it — is due to faults in our culture and society.
“There is a particular crisis for women—a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities,” wrote Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of “The Confidence Code,” as summarized in The Atlantic. “Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels.”
Kay and Shipman believe that the confidence gap is the result of many factors, ranging from upbringing to biology, but almost all women are negatively impacted by it.
“In study after study, the data confirm what we instinctively know,” said Kay and Shipman. “Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in. Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect.”
The two argue that the confidence gap can be closed, and that doing so will have a dramatic effect on women.
“To become more confident, women need to stop thinking so much and just act,” they said. “If we keep at it, if we channel our talent for hard work, we can make our brains more confidence-prone. What the neuroscientists call plasticity, we call hope.”
But not everyone agrees that solving women’s issues is only a matter of willpower.
“The 'confidence gap' is not a personal defect as much as it is a reflection of a culture that gives women no reason to feel self-assured,” said Jessica Valenti of the Guardian. “In just the past year, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a woman can be fired if her boss finds her attractive, a New York court decided that unpaid interns can't sue for sexual harassment, and the Paycheck Fairness Act was defeated by Republicans who claimed women actually prefer lower-paying jobs. So you'll have to excuse my guffaw when I hear what American women really need is more ‘confidence.’ It seems to me our insecurity is well-earned!”
While Valenti and others agree that women suffer from lower confidence than men, they believe that a meaningful improvement for women will only come with structural change. For example, Elizabeth Plank of PolicyMic outlines her list of real-world ways to make the world a better place for women, including instituting paid maternity leave, increasing the minimum wage, and promoting wider cultural acceptance of stay-at-home dads.
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Plank, like Valenti, believes that women often face much more significant obstacles in the workplace than men. These obstacles are the problem that must be dealt with first, Plank believes, not the emotional effect these obstacles might have on women.
“Trying to solve gender inequality in the workplace by telling women to be more confident is like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic after it hit the iceberg,” Plank said. “It may give the passengers something to do, but it definitely won't stop the ship from sinking."
Bethan Owen is a writer for the Deseret News Moneywise and Opinion sections. She has experience in journalism and public relations, and is studying political science at Brigham Young University.