Women’s Self-Confidence: The Obstacle to Achieving Gender Equity in Public Service?

Posted January 9th, 2012 at 5:27 pm.

Bryn Mawr Now guest blogger Sara Alcid ’12 was among the Bryn Mawr students who attended the Women in Public Service Project Colloquium on Dec. 15.

During the colloquium’s second panel discussion, Vice Admiral Carol Pottinger spoke about her struggle with self-confidence early on in her career and marked this issue as a great challenge to her ability to succeed as a young woman. Once Pottinger gave voice to this issue, her fellow panelists and later speakers echoed her story. Women’s self-confidence, or lack thereof, became a dominant point of discussion at the colloquium, with several women of power in public service urging the young leaders in the audience to work to overcome any lack of confidence in order to be able to participate in public service with pride and the assertiveness necessary for effectively sharing one’s vision for global governance.

Kathleen Sebelius, the US Secretary of Health and Human Services, knocked on the small table beside her chair and stated, “I know men in politics who are less bright than this table but they have no problem asserting themselves with confidence.” Sebelius contributed to the colloquium’s general observation that women seem to have less confidence than men, but shared that her sixteen years of all-female education gave her the tools to overcome this struggle that many women face.

I would certainly also attest to the fact that women’s colleges teach young women to have exceptional confidence and belief in their abilities. The non-normative ideologies of gender and power at Bryn Mawr unraveled the social conditioning I had undergone since a young age and “re-conditioned” me to approach my goals with a confidence that is aware of the falsity and patriarchal tilt of the messages that popular media and dominant gender ideologies send women.

Furthermore, the pedagogy of Bryn Mawr is bound up in analyzing systems of thought and structural violence in order to explain the emergence of societal “realities” like women having less confidence than men. During the bus ride back to Bryn Mawr from Washington, D.C., students that attended the colloquium discussed the issue of women’s self-confidence and could be heard saying: “Blame the system, not women!”

My one critique of the colloquium was that this “self-confidence issue” was not discussed in a manner that explicitly examined the relationship between normative gender roles and the socialization of women and girls that produces such a disparity in confidence. Women and girls are not born inherently lacking confidence. We are “taught” from a young age to lack belief in our vision and abilities by the media and pervasive gender norms; these influence everything from the toys we play with as children to the professions we feel able to aspire to.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Women in Public Service Project is going to change the game of politics and public service for women. However, I know that this could be achieved even more dramatically if challenges to gender parity in the public service profession, like issues of confidence, were tackled in a holistic manner that called gender ideologies and patriarchal hierarchies of power into question. Disturbing these systematic forces that work against women’s advancement in public service will be vital for the eventual realization of gender equality in politics, the home, the boardroom, etc.

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