The irony of feminizing schools

In a recent column I addressed some of the reasons for the gender wage gap, including the “mommy track,” prioritized commitments and poor negotiating skills. Now there’s evidence that shows women are much less self-assured than men, leading to a so-called “confidence gap.”

Most women can relate to this.

On a recent flight, I couldn’t help but overhear a passionate discussion between a woman and her husband. Her mentor had advised her to ask for a certain hourly rate, but she didn’t feel she was worth it. Her husband sided with the mentor and encouraged her to stand up for herself, but she kept coming up with reasons she couldn’t.

And then there’s someone whom I’ve always considered ultra-confident: “Lean In” author and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. “There are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am,” she confided to journalists Claire Shipman of ABC News — wife of President Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney — and Katty Kay of the BBC in their new book, “The Confidence Code.”

Shipman and Kay interviewed successful women in all walks of life, only to find that these women consistently, like Sandberg, expressed doubt that they deserve to be where they are. They attribute their successes either to luck or to the help of other people. In other words, they may be more reluctant to speak up, negotiate and advocate for themselves, which Shipman and Kay attribute partly to nature: Men are more likely to speak up at work because they’re more biologically programmed to take risks.

To succeed, confidence is as important as competence. Michael Lewis coined a somewhat crude term for successful self-promoters in the aggressively swaggering world of finance — “Big Swinging Dicks.” They’re good at their jobs, and they want to make sure everyone else knows it. But there’s no equivalent term for women because women are more reluctant to toot their own horns. (If you doubt this, consider how hard it is for women to even accept a compliment.)

This lesson was hammered home to me by our administrative assistant (this was in the dark ages, before computers) when, in my first post-college job, I naively wrote up my first self-appraisal. Carefully documenting every area in which I felt I needed improvement, I gave it to Evelyn to type up. After she read my notes, she read me the riot act, telling me that I had accomplished more than the men in the office, who had all given themselves glowing reviews, and that she wouldn’t work with me until I went back, rewrote the review and gave myself credit for the many goals I had met. Lesson learned.

Sadly, male managers Shipman and Kay interviewed said “they believed that a lack of confidence was fundamentally holding back women at their companies, but they had shied away from saying anything, because they were terrified of sounding sexist.”

To be sure, women have made great strides. Girls are outperforming boys in school in all areas: They are more likely to finish high school, to graduate from college or even earn a graduate degree. So why would that be a disadvantage in the workplace?

Well, Shipman and Kay back up my column on the detrimental effects of designing schools around “female values,” such as sensitivity, socialization and cooperation.

“School is where many girls are first rewarded for being good, instead of energetic, rambunctious or even pushy,” they write. And therein lies the problem. Girls aren’t taught to be more competitive or take more risks. And as much as teachers have tried their best to instill feminine traits in them, boys still manage to “make one another more resilient” though playground mentality, including roughhousing, teasing and bandied-about insults. The lessons learned make it easier to shake off reversals.

The irony is delicious, isn’t it?

Forty years ago, feminists demanded and won the passage of Title IX and the Women’s Educational Equity Act. Nothing wrong with that in principle, since boys and girls should of course have the same educational opportunities.

But in our quest to build girls up, we’ve also feminized our schools, making them more sensitive, less competitive, more cooperative places that mitigate risk-taking and failure. We’ve given out medals for just showing up. And instead of encouraging boys and girls to achieve at a higher level, we’ve lowered the bar to the lowest common denominator, so we don’t hurt the feelings of those who don’t achieve.

In other words, that amounts to poor preparation for the corporate world — for both women and men.

Susan Dench

About Susan Dench

Susan Dench is the founder and president of the fast-growing non-profit, non-partisan Informed Women's Network. Recognizing that many women are tired of "politics as usual," Susan decided to take action and develop strategies that are innovating the way women and politics intersect, nurturing and encouraging women in fun, energetic gatherings where views can be expressed in a supportive environment and then translated into practical solutions that produce results.