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Confidence Is a Feminist Issue

I had a great post all written on why confidence is a feminist issue, and then I did one of those things where I deleted the entire flipping thing and couldn’t get it back. I am afraid that I don’t have it in me to write the same again, so I’ll just give some of the highlights.

I’ve been reading and thinking about confidence lately in relation to my sport performance. Especially I’m aware that I convince myself of all sorts of negative things — I’m slow, I’ll always be last on the bike, I’ll never get any better…etc.

Confidence is a feminist issue because, as it turns out, there is a confidence gap.  Men are way more confident than women in all sorts of ways, and in a world where confidence takes people further than competence, that cashes out into all sorts of systemic advantages for men.

An article, “The Confidence Gap,” appeared in The Atlantic Monthly back in April. The authors point out that:

there is a particular crisis for women—a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.

A growing body of evidence shows just how devastating this lack of confidence can be. Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels. All of that is the bad news. The good news is that with work, confidence can be acquired. Which means that the confidence gap, in turn, can be closed.

So the bad news is, women haven’t got as much confidence as men and that has a negative impact on where women get to in life. The good news is that there are things that can change this.

But it’s not so simple as it might seem. Men gain status by being overconfident. But women who are overconfident aren’t perceived in as positive a light. They are more likely to be thought badly of:

Which is why any discussion of this subject requires a major caveat. Yes, women suffer consequences for their lack of confidence—but when they do behave assertively, they may suffer a whole other set of consequences, ones that men don’t typically experience. Attitudes toward women are changing, and for the better, but a host of troubling research shows that they can still pay a heavier social and even professional penalty than men do for acting in a way that’s seen as aggressive. If a woman walks into her boss’s office with unsolicited opinions, speaks up first at meetings, or gives business advice above her pay grade, she risks being disliked or even—let’s be blunt—being labeled a bitch. The more a woman succeeds, the worse the vitriol seems to get. It’s not just her competence that’s called into question; it’s her very character.

But what about in sport performance? And what about confidence as that internal resource, not necessarily external bravado, that says, “I can do this”?

The Atlantic article says that participation in sport alone has a positive impact on confidence.  But girls tend to drop out of sports in high school:

Studies evaluating the impact of the 1972 Title IX legislation, which made it illegal for public schools to spend more on boys’ athletics than on girls’, have found that girls who play team sports are more likely to graduate from college, find a job, and be employed in male-dominated industries. There’s even a direct link between playing sports in high school and earning a bigger salary as an adult. Learning to own victory and survive defeat in sports is apparently good training for owning triumphs and surviving setbacks at work. And yet, despite Title IX, fewer girls than boys participate in athletics, and many who do quit early. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, girls are still six times as likely as boys to drop off sports teams, with the steepest decline in participation coming during adolescence. This is probably because girls suffer a larger decrease in self-esteem during that time than do boys.

What a vicious circle: girls lose confidence, so they quit competing, thereby depriving themselves of one of the best ways to regain it.

It makes me wonder whether, had I had a different experience in sports as a girl, I might just be a more confident athlete today (and more confident in general, but right now my self-perception as a slow poke is the thing that is holding me back the most).

According to this article, confidence is one of the four Cs of good sport performance. The others are commitment, control, and concentration.  The author says of confidence:

Confidence is a positive state of mind and a belief that you can meet the challenge ahead – a feeling of being in control. It is not the situation that directly affects confidence; thoughts, assumptions and expectations can build or destroy confidence.

High self confidence

  • Thoughts – positive thoughts of success
  • Feelings – excited, anticipation, calm, elation, prepared
  • Focus – on self, on the task
  • Behaviour – give maximum effort and commitment, willing to take chances, positive reaction to set backs, open to learning, take responsibility for outcomes

Low self confidence

  • Thoughts – negative, defeat or failure, doubt
  • Feelings – tense, dread, fear. not wanting to take part
  • Focus – on others, on less relevant factors (coach, umpire, conditions)
  • Behaviour – lack of effort, likely to give up, unwilling to take risks (rather play safe), blame others or conditions for outcome

So it’s something I can work on. Meanwhile, I’m encouraged by Amy Cuddy’s research on power-posing, discussed by Sam on the blog way back in 2012.  See her post “Power Poses, Feminism, and Taking Up Space.”  There she talks about the results of Cuddy’s research that show that you can develop and exude confidence with a few minutes of power posing when you most need it. I myself find the wonder woman pose really helps when I’m feeling insecure about how I’m about to perform. But I haven’t yet applied it much with respect to sports performance.

That is something for this summer. I’ll report back about how it’s going. If you hear me complaining that I’m too slow or whining that I’m never going to get faster, feel free to call me out on it.

Meanwhile, for those who missed it the first time, here’s Amy Cuddy on power-posing.



17 thoughts on “Confidence Is a Feminist Issue

  1. This – especially your thoughts on being a slowpoke – is really interesting. I am not a very good powerlifter at all – I’ve been lifting for more than 5 years, and always come last in my competitions. When I talk about this, people tend to say things like “Don’t be so hard on yourself! Have more confidence!”, but the fact is that my always coming last is a *fact*, not something I say because I’m unconfident. And despite always coming last, I still train and I still compete. In 5 years of belonging to my squat, I’ve seen numerous people come into the squad, achieve highly really quickly (e.g. going to the British Championships in their first year), then stop training & never being seen again. And yet I have sticking power, despite not being very good. So when I say I’m not very good, I’m not saying that because I’m unconfident – if I wasn’t confident, would I still be coming to the gym, year after year, entering comp after comp? I don’t know – maybe not?

    1. I agree with you that there is also something important about staying with something even if you’re not going to win or might never make the gains you want to make at it. I might well be there in terms of my speed (I don’t know). Confidence where it was once lacking isn’t going to necessarily turn anyone into an Olympic (or even age-group) champion. But lack of confidence can definitely hinder performance, and that’s a documented fact. Here as in other things I think we can do well to expand the range of what we consider to qualify as “good.” When you say you’re not a good powerlifter, I’m guessing that you are good in lots of ways — form, commitment, etc. I always say that I’m not a good runner or cyclist, but my only measure is speed. In point of fact, I actually am not all that bad at either. I just want to be faster (and probably can be). Thanks for your comments!

      1. You’re right – when I say I’m not “good” I mean I’m never going to win or even place anywhere other than last in a comp; but I do have other strengths. I turn up 🙂 I have decent form, and my coach relies on me to help teach the newbies (which is always heartbreaking when they go on to kick my ass!!!!)

      2. Sorry, also wanted to add that even if I don’t see myself as “good”, it doesn’t mean I’m not confident. it just annoys me no end when people tell me I “should have more confidence in myself”.

  2. Tracy, there must be something about us both being in training for triathlon and learning how to ride with clipless pedals that puts us on the same psychological wavelength. I’ve been baking a post on this subject for a few weeks now, since I realized that doing the Keys had been like injecting my confidence-muscle (yes, that is a thing, I just made it up) with a shot of steroids. A lack of self-confidence has been an ongoing issue in my life, and taking up sports as an adult played a role in helping me to deal with that. Of course, it wasn’t the whole story, as I played sports in high school and I was dreadfully unconfident, but I do think that maturity and perspective has helped me to get a lot more out of it than I did as a teenager.

    Anyways, this is a great post, and I will most definitely be referencing this when I finally feel ready to write my own.

    1. Caitlin, I can’t wait to read your post about confidence. And I’m really glad to hear that the Keys was transformative. No kidding — if I EVER win my age group in anything I will be mighty stoked! But it’s not only about that. I think it has a lot to do with completing something that at one staged seemed (and was) out of reach. I’m feeling that way about the upcoming Olympic distance–when I think back to last year when I was doing try-a-tris it would have been an impossible goal.

      My confidence has definitely increased in other areas of my life and I can see that as a result I am performing better in them. So we’ll see what happens with the summer performance goals.

      Are you training for the Half Ironman distance now?

      1. I am, which is a bit nerve-wracking for other reasons (ahem, the bike). I know I can already do the run and the swim, so I’m putting a lot of emphasis on the bike right now. Brian has been really instrumental in helping me cope with the anxiety I get about riding. Ugh, I hate that it bothers me so much.

        You know, it’s not so much the AG (although that was pretty amazing, don’t get me wrong!) as it was, like you said, completing something that once seemed out of reach. I’ve found that every time I’ve done that – everything from running a 5K without stopping to my first triathlon to the Keys – my level of confidence has increased a bit at a time, and same as with you, I see it manifesting in other parts of my life. I still get nervous and feel vulnerable and all that, but I’m way more willing to just jump in despite my nerves and try things.

        It’s such a paradoxical thing, that the way to build genuine confidence that is worth a damn is to do things that seem to require a modicum of confidence to be willing to take on in the first place. The overconfidence that men tend to be instilled with is problematic for many reasons, but not least of all because it’s fragile and prone to feeling threatened by the smallest challenges. I think we’d all be better served by doing the hard work necessary to build confidence that actually is backed up by experience and action instead of just expecting to be born with it.

  3. “It makes me wonder whether, had I had a different experience in sports as a girl, I might just be a more confident athlete today.”

    This is me too, Tracy – sports and me were a disaster until about 5 years ago. And now, I have to say the #1 boost to my confidence on the bike (and in general!) over the past year has been thanks to my coach, Jo McRae. She was on the Morzine ride I blogged about last June, and was unbelievably supportive just as a matter of course on that ride. When I got home I learned she was a cycle coach, and now I see her for about an hour once every 8 weeks or so to go over stats, talk through strategies, etc. She also just did a bike fit for me, helping me to tweak my bike set-up for maximum efficiency. She communicates with me over email if I have questions, and she – most importantly – always ends up taking the raw data I produce and turns it into evidence of how strong and powerful I am, and how much moreso I’m becoming. She’s a racer and she keeps reminding me that I can *also* race – not just amateur stuff but beyond if I want. I do my very best to hear what she’s saying – that I *should* be confident because there is a tonne of evidence for my abilities on her computer screen – and her huzzahs after I break my own (or others’!) records on Strava really buoy me up. I thank the cycling goddess for Jo.

    Now, I know I’m lucky to be able to spend £75 a session on Jo, even though the sessions aren’t weekly or even monthly. I know not everyone can do this. I think we can all replicate this kind of support, though, by finding groups of women (and supportive men, of course) to ride with and share stats and training tips with. I’m really looking forward to learning from Sam when I get home in August, and I’m very happy to give you a hand on hills, Tracy, as hills are my strength. So maybe what I’m saying is: I love my coach and she keeps me emotionally strong; let’s work on sharing our knowledge and being amazing coaches to one another.

    1. Kim, your positive experience with your coach sounds as if it’s made a huge difference. I’ll take you up on your offer of help with the hills, though I hope that by the time I see you in August I’ll be that much more comfortable with them already (it’s coming, actually. I’m not terrified anymore and I pretty much make it up with lots of self-talk). I love what you say about forming supportive communities as a way of building confidence. Right now I struggle with this quite a bit–it’s not that the people I’m riding with aren’t supportive — they are super supportive. But I feel completely inadequate when I’m riding with them despite their reassurance and support. Why? Because I can’t keep up and they always have to wait. Sam says that someone always has to wait for someone — someone is always last. I just feel like I’m so ineffective on the bike, so damn slow, that riding with me is a big pain in the ass (even if that’s not what they say). I see the merits of riding with people more experienced, but I also think it might be nice not to be the newest newbie sometimes, or to ride with a group that is just a little less seasoned than Sam’s extremely experienced group. Again, this is not a comment on anything they have done or said or even intimated. Sam especially is so keen on me riding with her, is super supportive, and full of the best tips and info you can imagine, and extremely generous with sharing them. I like riding with her because I also know she is a deep well of patience. I hope you are too!
      Looking forward to seeing you.

  4. Also, Caitlin: I’ll trade you a guest post on learning for the Keys for a guest post on women, clipping in and out, and gendered jockeying on the road if you want. 😉

  5. Caitlin, FWIW, it could be that learning to ride a tri-bike AND use clipless pedals at the same time is what is the real challenge. Have you considered putting clipless pedals on your road bike and starting there? No doubt you are well aware of this already, but Tri bikes are not the most maneuverable (from all that I’ve read, they’re designed for solo riders to go fast on straight flats, the same as time trial bikes). I can’t imagine adding that to the mix while trying to get comfortable with clipless pedals.

    Anyway, I still get a little not in my gut when I’m about to jump on the road bike and clip in, but I’m quite comfortable with the pedals now. I just want to go faster!

    Totally on the same page as you re. confidence and all the paradoxes it involves! Good luck with your HIM training. You’re going to be awesome — so far every time you’ve tried something new and increased your distance you’ve done a fabulous job AND you’ve exceeded your expectations. You’re going to kill that HIM.

  6. Cycling is inherently a solo sport, it does not require daily team /group training. It helps, to become a good non-competitive team member, if the person hones their endurance, strength, stamina, etc.

    I really, really believe that the overemphasis on team sport for girls is overplayed and not necessarily the only way she can gain confidence. It just simply helps for a growing girl that she enjoys and feels confident in any particular sport that she will most likely will undertake it in her adult years for a long time.

    If you are non-white, it must be just not sport, but a strong confidence in understanding who you are, your family and other influences in your life, as 1 pkg. of self-confidence. It’s a huge ball of wax for any teen and can be overwhelming.

  7. Reblogged this on FIT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE and commented:

    Four years ago, I wrote about confidence as a feminist issue. Today I still think it is. I know Amy Cuddy’s work on power posing has been called into question, but I still think there is a place for it. I have never felt worse after standing like Wonder Woman. I’ve also lately been listening to a great podcast (not really about fitness but about life in general) called “The Confidence Chronicles” with a woman named Erika. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I’m sure, but I like her message of taking no shit. So here’s my post from five years ago about why confidence is a feminist issue. Enjoy!

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