This article was originally published by Forbes.
A recurring theme at women’s conferences is the narrative that “women just need to be confident.”
If confidence were a switch in our brains that we could flip on, this well-intentioned advice would be transformative. Since it’s not exactly a binary system that we can activate – confident vs unconfident – it’s worth considering why women’s professional confidence might be a little shakier than our male counterparts’. (Hint: it’s not just you.)
Remember “girl toys” and “boy toys” in McDonald’s Happy Meals? Our brothers and cousins got zippy Hot Wheels cars, while we got creepy Barbie statues that didn’t move or actually look a whole lot like Barbie. Even in my baby feminist brain, I resented the gendered distinction.
Stereotypical boy and girl toys serve as tools for socialization: they teach kids how they’re expected to behave in society. Generally speaking, girls’ activities focus on being pretty, becoming princesses, or taking care of other people – consoling baby dolls or making tiny pies in tiny ovens. Boys, meanwhile, are encouraged to run around outside, take risks (by pretending to race cars, for example), or change their environment by building things or blowing them up.
Even toys that are ostensibly gender neutral tend to cater more toward boys. I was a serious Lego enthusiast as a child, but when it came time to populate my cities with Lego people, there were basically no girls to be found. Girl Legos were at such a premium that I would regularly trade my cousin Justin my boy Legos for a small handful of girl Legos at an exchange rate of 4:1, unwittingly creating an ultra-feminist lesbian Lego commune in the process.
Outside the land of toys, girls are taught to play in groups of consensus, to be concerned about how everyone else is feeling (while occasionally talking shit behind their backs). Alternatively, boys are encouraged to use direct communication and are rewarded for competition via sports and roughhousing.
Notice any parallels to office politics?
Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani frames it this way: boys are taught to be brave, while girls are taught to be perfect. While girls are being taught to avoid risk and failure, she says boys are encouraged to “crawl to the top of the monkey bars and then just jump off head first. And by the time they're adults, whether they're negotiating a raise or even asking someone out on a date, they're habituated to take risk after risk. They're rewarded for it.”
Countless studies have demonstrated that the ways kids are socialized impacts adult women. Good-girl conditioning is how we learned to adopt the behaviors and attitudes expected of women. Tara Mohr, an expert on women’s leadership and well-being, sums it up, “Be nice. Be considerate of others. Don’t rock the boat. Be likable.”
All this collaboration and concern about everyone else can cost us: we often focus on being a team player at the expense of our own well-being. A friend calls this the “Need to Please Disease.”
This makes a ton of sense when you consider that for most of human history, women’s very survival depended on men liking us. While we might be tempted to think of reliance on men for physical safety as a relic of dangerous times long past, our financial dependence on men was all but guaranteed until not long ago.
As recently as 1974, banks often required single, divorced or widowed women to have a man co-sign on their credit cards. When I remember that my grandmother had to get the greenlight from my grandfather to spend her own money, my not having girl Legos doesn’t seem so bad.
Blissfully, today we see positive changes in how girls are socialized and society’s expectations of women. There’s an entire niche industry designed to encourage girls to explore science and technology, and there’s greater racial and gender diversity in toys across the board. But Dora the Explorer can’t undo generations of entrenched socialization, and we can’t go back in time and unlearn the messages we internalized as kids.
What we can do is recognize the impact of that socialization. Long after you’ve stopped ordering Happy Meals (no judgment if you still do), those expectations about how girls and women are “supposed” to behave is still likely to influence your behavior, how others expect you to behave, and cultural expectations about femininity.
I’d love to live in a world where we don’t have these rigid expectations of femininity, where women are able to embrace their worth and their confidence is celebrated. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet.
We have to operate within the system as it exists today, while simultaneously – if we choose to – trying to change it.
In the short term, awareness of these biases can help prevent us from internalizing negative messages or beating ourselves up for a perceived lack of confidence. So, if you struggle from the “Need to Please Disease”, know that you’re not alone, and there’s likely good reason.