A new book explores growing calls for women to work on their confidence and self belief and argues that this focus on the individual often ignores structural injustice.
Confidence has become big news from marketing to the workplace – women everywhere are told to be believe in and love themselves. Inspirational messages about self love abound on social media. In a world full of confidence training, confidence ambassadors, self-help books and entreaties to fake it till you make it, confidence has hit the big time. So what’s wrong with that?
A new book, Confidence culture by professors Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill, examines the phenomenon not just of increasing calls to be more confident, but how they run side by side with what seem to be contradictory calls for women to be much more open about their vulnerabilities, insecurities and weaknesses. The two go hand in hand, says the book, with vulnerability becoming “almost mandatory” and ‘authorising the individualistic psychological confidence imperative’. The aim of both, the authors state, seems to be an emphasis on individual agency, on changing women rather than changing the world, adding an extra layer of responsibility to women’s lives.
The book looks at this in terms of body confidence, motherhood, workplace success, relationship and more.
In the section on work, it highlights the trend for women to be more vulnerable and express weakness, to talk about imposter syndrome and so forth at a time when work itself is more insecure and when there is greater inequality. This suggests that it is geared more towards the privileged, given it is harder to admit weakness when you are already in a fairly weak position. Similarly, the chapter on relationships highlights how calls to greater self-belief have come at a time of Covid, when women have been under intense pressure to keep the whole show running. Not only have they had to homeschool and work around their children, but they have been encouraged to work on their emotional resilience too, argues the book. When it comes to mothering, women are also more aware than ever of the requirement to be good role models for their daughters in a way that dads aren’t.
The problem, say the authors, is that this confidence mantra ignores the structural issues that hold women back. They also point out that the trajectory from low to high self esteem and resilience is usually standardised with very similar behaviours adopted. At the same time such messages seem to champion feminism and inclusion, although they often eschew the complexity of, for example, racial subjectivities. The authors place this form of feminism into a historical continuum from postfeminism which was a reaction in part to criticism of earlier feminists as angry and “ugly, hairy-legged and so forth”.
In their conclusion they argue that the triumph of this confidence culture is not inevitable and point out signs where confidence co-exists with an awareness of structural inequalities – a case study on Lizzo is one example.
They conclude: “The confidence cult[ure] is also ever more entangled with other contemporary discourses and imperatives to happiness, inspiration, resilience, affirmation, and gratitude. ‘New Age spirituality’ is increasingly embedded in corporate culture and circulated more widely through smartphone apps and social media that traffic ideas about ‘positive mental attitude’, the ‘law of attraction’ [in which ‘the universe’ is said to ‘have your back’] and capital-friendly McMindfulness programmes…”
They call for more studies on this issue so that we can have “a fuller understanding of the extent to which warm, ‘innocent’ and affirmative injunctions to feel more confident are contributing to a politics in which the emphasis is upon changing women, rather than changing an unjust world.”
*Confidence culture by Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill is published by Duke University Press.