Friday 24 January 2020

Catherine O'Mahony: 'Self-confidence can be a con trick but women need to show more for the glass ceiling to be truly smashed'

Taking on bosses: Julia Roberts is still considered cinema’s poster girl for equality in her role as Erin Brockovich.
Taking on bosses: Julia Roberts is still considered cinema’s poster girl for equality in her role as Erin Brockovich.
Catherine O'Mahony

Catherine O'Mahony

The sprog came home from school recently with a paper showing a test result of 90pc which she shoved meaningfully under my nose for comment.

Idiot that I am, I made a joke about what happened to the other 10pc. The face fell. The backtracking came too late. Another confidence boost opportunity missed.

The shame came back to me this week after news of a study that found male scientists are more likely than female ones to publish work they themselves describe as "excellent", "unique" or "novel".

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In the case of the word "novel", a paper was 59pc more likely to include the term if one or both of its authors were male.

The study didn't consider whether or not the work was in fact more novel or unique - the implication was that this did not matter. Think about that. The substance was irrelevant. It was the confidence that counted.

More to the point, the study also demonstrated a greater likelihood a scientific study would be used as a reference point in future studies if it contained at least one positive term about itself.

Meaning, if I can paraphrase, that bragging about your own work is actually an effective marketing tool, even in what we imagine to be the wholly fact-based world of scientific study.

And men are better at it.

The study didn't look at the impact of similar tactics in less empirically driven contexts but I guess if it had it would show an even stronger connection between how a person describes themselves and how they are seen.

It seems all that guff we heard at school about showing rather than telling is a load of nonsense. We need to show. Apparently, we need to show off.

Not that this is news, really. I once worked with someone who, no matter what his task was at any given time, no matter what his mood, no matter what else was happening and no matter who else was working hard and effectively in the office, he routinely described his own work as being "incredibly important".

It used to fascinate me to watch him, week in, week out, as he deliberately and forcefully argued his task up the pecking order to the top of the week's agenda. It never seemed to matter if someone else was working on something that was arguably even more compelling.

It never seemed to matter if what he was working on was not, in fact, all that compelling at all. He simply never betrayed an ounce of self-doubt. He never gave any quarter.

And the remarkable thing to observe was this: he prevailed. Most weeks his assessment of his task was accepted, more or less, as being correct.

It was hard to resist his confidence. He said it was important. And important it became.

It all goes to call into question that old adage we all grew up with and which more women seem to internalise than men: self-praise is no praise. But is it?

The issue won't surprise anyone who's been paying attention to the way men and women present themselves in education, in their private lives and in their working lives.

Self-deprecation is not a uniquely female thing, of course, but it's often at the core of women's sense of humour in a way that you don't see among men.

It's not clear why there's such a difference - possibly it's hormones, possibly nurture, possibly both - but it seems pretty clear that there's a gender confidence gap that seems to begin in childhood and that generally seems to get amplified as life goes on. It's an increasingly well-documented phenomenon too, the subject of a series of papers and books.

For instance, in 2011 the UK's Institute of Leadership and Management surveyed British managers about how confident they feel in their professions. Half the female respondents reported self-doubt about their job performance. Fewer than a third of male respondents did.

More recent studies have suggested things may be even more complicated - that women in leadership roles essentially feel no less confident than men about their abilities but are reluctant to demonstrate this openly because when they do so, they are judged negatively in a way that men never would be. This last point reminded me of the women I have worked with in the past - and there were quite a few, to be fair - whose outward confidence was no less than that of male colleagues.

They too ended up being successful, in some instances beyond the core merit of their work. But the difference was they were indeed often judged negatively, called bossy, full of themselves and arrogant.

They had to be tough to suck that up and they were. But the basic unfairness of it is hard to overlook.

Awareness is, one might hope, half the battle here and there are grounds to hope that all of this is starting to change.

That said, my personal observations of the current swishy-haired generation of young women - who for all their talk of empowerment and gender fluidity appear considerably more conscious of their own femininity than anyone of my generation ever was - make me a little nervous for them.

Could it be that the confidence gap lies behind the results of a depressing study from the Higher Education Authority last week that found a pay gap between male and female graduates opens up within a year of leaving college and widens over time?

The research showed that men earn on average €14 per week more within a year of graduating, and €130 per week more after eight years. These are gaps that exist even before most people think about raising families.

We need to break this cycle. I must stop calling myself an idiot (see top paragraph).

And the next time the sprog brings home a great test result I will do a celebratory dance.

Irish Independent

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