Back in May I read an article in the Atlantic Monthly that rocked me. “The Confidence Gap” addressed the gaping hole of women in top leadership positions. I read it expecting the usual issues: poor math scores, smaller salaries, always feeling behind everyone else. And certainly, this article provided plenty of those sad and disappointing assessments.
As a woman, some of the information was also incredibly helpful. We do not take chances the way men do. We underestimate ourselves. Culture’s need to shape us into “good girls” does permanent damage when it comes to necessary risk taking. But the thing that bothered me about this article was not the information about women. None of that really came as a surprise. What I was unprepared for was how the article described accomplished men. Basically, they sound like sociopaths.
Men, according to the article, have tremendous amounts of confidence. They think they are smarter than they actually are. Men will apply for jobs when they meet only 60% of the qualifications. And they are four times (!) as likely to ask for raises as women. But where the article kept seeing confidence, I kept seeing crazy. Am I surrounded by a gender who is clueless to their actual levels of intelligence? Do most men I know really think they are smarter than they are? And further, why in the world is this something to aspire to? Don’t hear me wrong. I am a woman of my own ambition. But if successfully leading means walking around thinking you are somehow George Clooney when you are really Barney Fife, then thanks, but I’ll keep my own neurosis.
Of course, this article hit hard on a personal level. I am married to a guy who is a professional leader. He puts in long days, runs big meetings, and attempts to do his very best. And yet, this article made him, and those of his ilk, sound bananas. To be honest, I could not make it all square up. So I have carried this article around, hoping something would help me make sense of it. And finally Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly made its way onto my nightstand. In one anecdote, she explained everything to me. Brown describes signing books after a lecture she gave on shame. She was approached by a husband and wife, only when the wife walked away, the husband lingered to chat:
It started innocently enough. ‘I like what you have to say about shame,’ he told me. ‘Its interesting.’
I thanked him and waited—I could tell there was more coming.
I felt instant relief. This wasn’t going to take long because I didn’t know much. I explained, ‘I haven’t done many interviews with men. I just study women.’
He nodded and said, ‘Well. That’s convenient.’
I felt the hair on the back on my neck stand up in defense. I forced a smile and asked, ‘Why convenient?’ in the very high voice that I use when I’m uncomfortable. He replied by asking me if I really wanted to know. I told him yes, which was a half-truth. I was on my guard.
Then his eyes welled up with tears. He said, ‘We have shame. Deep shame. But when we reach out and share our stories, we get the emotional shit beat out of us.’ I struggled to maintain eye contact with him. His raw pain had touched me, but I was still trying to protect myself. Just as I was about to make a comment about how hard men are on each other, he said, ‘Before you say anything about those mean coaches, bosses, brothers, and fathers being the only ones…’ He pointed towards the back of the room where his wife was standing and said, ‘My wife and daughters—the ones you signed all of those books for—they’d rather see my die on top of my white horse than watch me fall off. You say you want us to be vulnerable and real, but c’mon. You can’t stand it. It makes you sick to see us like that.”
Brown goes on to describe the research on shame she began to do with men. It is staggering. When she asked men to talk about what shame means in their lives, words like defective, weakness, and soft came up. Notably, men see shame itself as failure. Meaning that a cycle of “failure to shame to failure to shame,” must be a very common experience for many men, particularly those in leadership positions.
Immediately, I knew what bothered me about the Atlantic Monthly article. Where they had delved deeply into what makes women feel less sure of themselves, they failed to ask why men are “confident.” And perhaps the even more difficult question, are men really that enthusiastically sure of themselves? Do they actually think that their shortcomings do not matter? I have spent enough time reading male voices on Mockingbird to know that men face the same moments of self-doubt that I experience. Men are not immune to feeling like achievement imposters. But, as Brene points out, we are culturally not okay with men being so honest.
The interesting thing about the Atlantic Monthly article was that it did not offer an answer to the problem. It posited that women are less confident than men. Statistics were offered. Experts consulted. And in the end, the “fix” that was suggested involved teaching women to believe they were doing better than they had actually done. Basically, we should put up our own walls against vulnerability and hide our own self-doubt. We should become men. It is not really an answer. It’s a prescription for us to be troubled in a whole new way.
The fact that women find their identity in underestimating themselves is not news. Several months ago, I tried to handle this very topic here at Mbird in relation to the creeping trend of mothers parading their failures in public. Where we once were expected to be Donna Reed, women are now expected to be fans of our shortcomings and full of insecurities, sometimes even justified by our confessions (rather than forgiven of them). I theorized that we (often) willingly embrace this dynamic, ironically enough, to feel better about ourselves. So neither sex is somehow innocent of shame-related legalism. I wonder what the other side of that behavior is for the men in our lives. They have their own Y chromosomal legal code. They are expected to be the bread winners, nay the world winners, with not a crack in their human exterior. As Brene Brown so eloquently puts it:
“I was not prepared to hear over and over from men how the women—the mother, sisters, girlfriends, wives—in their lives are constantly criticizing them for not being open and vulnerable and intimate, all the while they are standing in front of that cramped wizard closet where their men are huddled inside, adjusting the curtain and making sure no one sees in and no one gets out. There was a moment when I was driving home from an interview with a small group of men and thought, Holy shit. I am the patriarchy.”
Her words have shaken my foundation. I look at men differently. I look at my husband, son, father, and brother differently. I think the mistake Atlantic Monthly made was an honest one. I think it is easy to assume that women are alone in their suffering. But it is not so simple. Life and identity are infinitely more complicated than we want them to be. Men were not made to hold the world up by themselves. Our fathers were not made to be hardened statues of strength. Our husbands are not able to walk this world in denial of their vulnerability; allowing us to fall apart while they must always keep themselves together. Like all of us, the men in our lives need saving. They need a Savior.
The Prince of Peace, who meets us in our self-doubt. Our Good Shepherd, who sees our hidden pain. The Lamb of God, who takes the weight of the world on his shoulders and exchanges it all for his uncompromising Grace.