Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Self-Confidence: A Central Challenge to Gender Parity in Politics?

Last month, I was honored to attend the Women in Public Service Project Colloquium as a feminist leader at Bryn Mawr College and student journalist. The Women in Public Service Project was launched by the US Department of State (special nod to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton) and the Seven Sisters Colleges to increase the participation of women in politics and the public service sector by facilitating the mentorship of young female leaders and starting conversations about the detrimental nature of normative gender roles that do not usually permeate mainstream discourse. Overall, the colloquium was incredibly empowering and being surrounded by the trailblazing energy of the likes of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem (pictured above with me), Madeleine Albright, and Atifete Jahjaga, the President of Kosovo was enough to help me forget the doubts I have about my ability climb to the top of the male-dominated ladder of politics and public service. However, I am fortunate to have little doubt about that in the first place, which became increasingly clear at the colloquium.

To my surprise, women's struggle with self-confidence became a prominent theme at the colloquium. During the colloquium’s second panel discussion, Vice Admiral Carol Pottinger, Deputy Chief of Staff of Capability Development at NATO Headquarters (pictured above, second to the right), 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 (pictured above, on the far right), 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 am still livid about Sebelius's decision to reverse the FDA's decision to sell Plan B over the counter, regardless of age, but was happy that she brought up the value of single sex education in alleviating this seeming epidemic of women and girls' low self-confidence.

The relevance of and need for women's colleges are questioned like clock-work each year in the media, but always with a resounding response of, "YES they are still relevant!" from women's college students and graduates and those that study the affect of all-female learning environments.

I certainly 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!”

Speaking of "the system" and structural violence, 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. In case you are not convinced about this structural violence against women's self-confidence, consider the endless policing of Hillary Clinton's pantsuits and the sexualization of Sarah Palin, the portrayal of female athletes, and the early limitations put on the possibilities for girls' future careers (read princess). It should not be forgotten that boys and men are similarly socialized to aspire to a very specific masculinity and very specific futures. In short, gender socialization restricts the ability to experience true free will and flourishment for both girls and boys, women and men. However, I would argue that normative masculinity contains more upward social mobility than normative femininity, which is why high-power female leaders spoke about their struggle to overcome low self-esteem in order to occupy their current positions of influence. This is also not to say that men do not struggle with confidence issues, especially with the prevalence of bullying among both genders in today's schools, but Secretary Clinton and her high-power female peers often find themselves sitting at meeting tables at the White House being the only female present and have attributed much of this disparity to women's struggle to garner self-confidence.

It's difficult to disrupt and restructure systems of thought that have solidified around the gendering of confidence, but one thing we can all do at a personal level to begin to unravel the system is so stop policing those in our inner circles. Stop telling your sister to lose weight; start telling her that her strong thighs are beautiful. Stop calling your friend engaging in consensual, safe sex with many different partners a slut; start applauding her for her ability to disregard our slut-shaming culture. Stop silencing yourself and others surrounding highly gendered issues, like sports, fashion, and cooking. Start challenging yourself to enter conversations that you have thoughts about, but don't feel welcome in because of your gender. These are just a few examples of how we can change the gendered confidence disparity in our everyday lives.

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.

Photo Credit: Jim Roese

1 comment:

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