Self Esteem Is A Female Prerogative
Will the confidence gap become a thing of the past?
In October 2008, I attended the annual conference of the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society almost one month to the day after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Rebellion stirred the air of the normally sedate and earnest conference, loosely modeled on Davos-- except that the participants, speakers, and hosts are mostly women.
Everyone was abuzz with outrage at events that had gathered momentum in the previous months and then, with remarkable speed, led the global economy to the brink of collapse.
One keynote speaker captured the mood perfectly. “These guys,” she sputtered from the lectern. “They kept telling us we weren’t qualified to make the big decisions. We didn’t understand strategy, we lacked vision and guts. It’s time for women to stop buying into this myth that we aren’t ready for top positions. Clearly, the world can’t afford for us not to step up!”
Presenters repeatedly referenced the high-profile women who had warned of trouble during the run-up to the Lehman debacle: financial analyst Meredith Whitney had stunned markets in early 2007 when she forecast massive write-downs for some of the most exalted names on Wall Street. Sheila Bair, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Chair, repeatedly raised the alarm on the dangers of subprime lending. Brooksley Born, former head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, had spent the previous decade pleading for the regulation of derivative contracts. Unable to make headway, she resigned her post.
These Forum participants in 2008 were women who had been frustrated by decades of halting professional progress and who had struggled to make their voices heard at the most senior levels, where strategic decisions were made. They viewed this moment as an opportunity to strengthen their resolve and break through the skepticism that had dogged their efforts to move ahead.
In effect, the events of that year persuaded many women that they had underestimated their own capacity for strategic insight and vision. And just like that, what had come to be known as “the confidence gap” between men and women started to shrink.
In the intervening years, progress for women, though uneven, has proven substantial. One indicator, cited often by the press, is the growing number of women who have assumed leadership of huge and influential organizations: Northrup, Citigroup, General Motors, UPS, the World Bank and the European Commission to name a few.
Though this is and should be a source of pride to us all, confirming that women are fit for any job, the fact remains that overall representation remains far too modest: just 8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, only 11% of countries have a female head of state and a tiny fraction-- less than 1% of all countries--have equal female representation in their legislatures.
Still the numbers, as ever, don’t tell the entire story. Having worked with organizations big and small for over 35 years on issues of women’s standing and leadership, I’ve witnessed what can only be called a remarkable shift, qualitatively speaking, in women’s perception of themselves as potential leaders.
Women have become far more confident about what they have to contribute even if many are still affected by structural barriers and outright prejudice. As I wrote in last week’s post, Solidarity Wins the Day, we have also learned through experience the value of female solidarity and support. Many of us have risen through the ranks thanks to skilled mentorship and support, and we’re eager to pay it forward to women coming up. Men, too, have become enthusiastic allies–– not in all cases, but the shift is remarkable. Each of these changes, while different in origin, reinforces the others.
Of course, this evolution has not looked the same for all women, and the path to power has been particularly narrow and challenging for women of color, especially during the pandemic.
But, after the pain of the 2008 financial crisis, the #MeToo Movement, and now the pandemic, something substantial has changed and the culture has shifted into high gear. Women have each other’s backs. The belief in the need for self assertion and solidarity is palpable– I see it all over the world. And most importantly, perhaps for the first time, women are demonstrating a belief in their own worth and competence that rivals that of men.
That fateful day back in 2008, I knew I was witnessing a landmark moment in women’s quest. It is a quest not just to assume positions of power, but to exert influence on the decisions that determine humanity’s common social and economic fate.
That task today is particularly urgent.