Hands Off My Confidence

I will be honest with you. I am so over people referring to women or black people or black women as if we are mysterious creatures, suffering from mysterious ailments, the causes of which can never possibly be understood. This is the white cis male narrative that surveys humanity with a detached fake-objectivity that erases all of our context and history and then scratches its head in genuine and judgmental wonder. The thing with dominant narratives is they are everywhere, infecting us all.

Right now I want to talk about the women-lack-confidence narrative. I can be at a panel on women in math, listening to important statistics and first-hand accounts, with each speaker quite on point about the situation we face. Then inevitably someone will bring up how they’ve noticed their female students don’t have the same confidence as their male students. Everyone nods, wearing their empathy faces. At this point anyone eavesdropping on my brain would notice that all my thoughts are on fire while my body goes into fight or flight mode and I vaguely consider interrupting with raging incredulity.

I haven’t interrupted (yet). I just sit there and watch all the young women in the audience receive the burden of confidence. Hey ladies, why don’t you just try being more confident. Oh, and smile more. You’d look confident if you smiled more.

Fascinating, isn’t it? How women are just never good enough to overcome sexism. Same for people of color and racism. Double for women of color. I WONDER WHY THAT IS.

I want us to rethink confidence for a bit. In my own life, people’s opinions of my confidence have been entirely based on whether I was willing to risk negative judgment. If I avoid the situation I think might go poorly, I don’t have enough confidence. If I do the thing of my own accord without cowering, even if I declare my intense discomfort and general pessimism, I am confident. Young children are naturally confident, maybe even too confident (I’m looking at you, naked toddler climbing over the couch). What causes children to lose their confidence?

I don’t have a great story about losing my confidence. I don’t have a story about mean children or uncaring adults. I did skip second grade which put me in a new situation with a lot of new people, but I don’t remember feeling unsafe or anything. It just happened that one day I finally understood all the messages all consumers of US media receive on a continual basis. I lost my confidence when I realized that, through no fault of my own, I was a wrong type of person. My thighs were too big, my stomach too round, my voice too soft. For that matter, my words were too infrequent. People categorized me. I got older and realized that my non-European face wasn’t feminine enough. My hair wasn’t well-behaved enough. My thighs were a persistent problem. My lack of small-talk required constant justification. It’s really important for people to know just what exactly is wrong with you, so that they can stop thinking about you, and get back to their normal lives with their normal people.

Keep in mind that not once growing up did I ever question my intelligence. One of the labels I was given early on was “smart” (which was also called “good at math”), and I knew it was true. Even in graduate school, where for the first time I felt intellectually worthless, I knew that I was still as smart as I’d ever been. I just happened to be surrounded by even smarter people (or…). I had all the confidence in the world in my brain, but I knew it was my body that determined my worth. I knew it was my body that I would be judged on, that I had to protect the world from, that would determine who would ever love me. I knew this because that’s what I was told every day of my life from magazines and television and movies and my classmates.

I can only know about myself, but I hypothesize that many people who lack confidence are people who make the rational assumption that individuals carry with them the same beliefs as mainstream society. I think you don’t want to see my face or my body because my face and my body are never shown (favorably) on TV. I think it’s not safe to make mistakes because I have had to justify everything I’ve ever done, even things that were beyond my control. Yet you look at me with compassionate eyes and think it’s a shame I won’t just take more risks. Don’t you see what I’ve risked already?

People who are confident are people who feel certain that they will not regret their actions. Is it any wonder that white cis gender heterosexual men seem to have more confidence? They have been rewarded their whole lives just for existing, while the rest of us are questioned and scrutinized completely unjustifiably. A black woman never acts alone. I have to contend with representing my whole race or gender. If I am wrong it has much bigger consequences for me than it would otherwise, because opportunities for me are always possibly just a favor, ready to be rescinded.

I’ll be honest. I am full of dread typing this post. I prefer to know, before I speak, how my words will be received. I prefer to have some control over the labels I receive. I dread finding out that everyone misunderstood the same paragraph. I dread having to respond (or not) to objections that completely miss the point. I also struggled to write this because it is my inclination to make declarative statements, but I’d hate for my point to be lost because I accidentally said something about human psychology that was verifiably untrue. (For instance, I don’t actually know whether women are less confident, or are just perceived to be, or if it’s just women in STEM, or women in STEM at a certain level, etc.) In fact, this whole endeavor of being a co-editor for a legit blog terrifies me. I don’t know what will be required of me, and I’m afraid I will end up “not pulling my weight” because I won’t “take initiative” or offer enough “input” if any decisions need to be made.

It may sound like I could stand to be more confident, but my concerns are founded because I’ve already lived through these things. Sometimes “not confident” is “thinks fielding oppressive crap is a waste of time.” Sometimes “not confident” is “has accepted the mainstream values which are supported everywhere she goes.”

I want us all to stop worrying about whether women are confident enough. You should know that I perceive the charge as a criticism. I understand, as I’m supposed to, that confidence correlates with success and that lacking confidence creates missed opportunities which often makes success more difficult. I understand, as I’m supposed to, that confidence is a personal trait and therefore lack of confidence is a personal flaw. When I hear women’s lack of confidence listed as a reason for under-representation, I feel scrutinized.

I do have confidence now. I no longer care about society’s views or how many people agree with them. I can be the first and only person on a dance floor; I can fly across the country to be the center of attention while I open up about my insecurities and answer personal questions; I can tell well-meaning white women I don’t accept their apologies as long as they’re standing by their belief that my experiences are invalid. I can survive being asked if I’m pregnant when I’m not. Each of these would have produced seemingly insurmountable levels of fear and shame several years ago, and I would have moved mountains to avoid them.

Before you declare the happy ending to my confidence journey, you should know that I still align myself with those students who aren’t confident, because my feelings about myself actually haven’t changed. I am still infected with society’s values, I just don’t respect them anymore. I no longer make decisions based on those values. I no longer sacrifice myself in the name of those beliefs, because I came to the realization that I could follow all those rules and still be blamed for my own rape or murder. When I give my “Liberated Mathematician” talk and students are impressed by my confidence, that is what they see in me now. Someone who does what she wants, what she thinks is right, without apologizing or asking permission first, because she realizes nothing will ever make her truly safe.

Women deserve to have confidence. They deserve to move freely, to act without undue scrutiny. Women should not have to justify every thought, passion, or choice. They deserve to expect to move freely, to expect to be able to act without undue scrutiny. Women should not expect to have to justify every thought, passion, or choice. When you think about women who lack confidence, think about the society that trained them to live up to higher standards than men. This goes for other marginalized groups and especially people of color who are also marginalized by gender and/or sexuality.

Stop telling women they need to be more confident. Stop telling us we aren’t (confident) enough. Start telling men to stop being sexist. Start telling society that you don’t agree with its objectification of women and its dehumanization of women of color. Let your marginalized students know that they have been more scrutinized than the white cis men they are in competition with. Let them know that the standards they hold themselves to are keeping them from certain opportunities, but that also these double standards are still real. Students who are afraid to make mistakes have learned from experience that it’s not safe to make mistakes. Let them know you hear them, and you support them. Let them know you are working to make it safe for them to make mistakes.

In the end, what we want is not women who stand taller in the face of sexism. We want sexism to go away.

Remember that the reason I act so confidently these days is because I know nothing will spare my body or my life in the face of racism or sexism. That’s what I carry with me, while I make bold choices, and subject myself to other people’s opinions. Sometimes “not confident” is “not ready to know how terrible the world is.”

I ask, always, that we support all marginalized and excluded groups. I ask that we create environments where mistakes and diverse perspectives are encouraged. I offer no concrete solutions. And now I’m going to send this to a few people, including my co-editors, before it goes live, because that is what I want to do.

This entry was posted in racism, sexism, victim-blaming, women in math. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Hands Off My Confidence

  1. Dave Kung says:

    This is fantastic. Thanks for sharing. When it comes to supporting under-represented people in mathematics, we need to invert the standard “deficit” model: it’s not their fault, it’s our fault.

  2. K says:

    Fantastic. I feel like this should be required reading. Also, I want to be your friend.

  3. Angela says:

    Thank you for sharing!! Thank you for being brave and writing your post and articulating what it like to live this reality. One of the first people I met in grad school told me that one of his mentors “math was 95% confidence” and this was immediately distressing. I’m sure that he meant in a different way than I took it, but I’ve still been haunted by it since.

    I have great discussions with my women colleagues about these intersectional issues but haven’t figured out how to broach this, or acknowledge these issues. I feel that they hold me back in my own professional development as I find it difficult to voice things of which I am not sure of.

    How do we move forward and tackle these issues? I find it personally easier to articulate the underlying social issues and injustices that lead to these narratives of “confidence”, than to rely only on my own experiences, when it comes to calling others out on this, or explaining why in fact this is an issue. But that itself is a kind of unconfidence in the validity of my own experiences!

  4. Kelly says:

    Thank you for writing this. Also a STEM woman, and trying to sort through these issues myself. I appreciate your bravery (confidence 🙂 ) knowing how difficult it can be to broach this subject.

    “Let them know that the standards they hold themselves to are keeping them from certain opportunities, but that also these double standards are still real.”

    So well put. I’ve had growing hopes the last few years that our culture is coming along more quickly in support of what it radically (comparatively) promised us when we were young, and that hope is due to hearing more voices like yours, so again thank you.

  5. Helen G. Grundman, AMS Director of Education and Diversity says:

    Thank you, Piper! This is all so well put!

  6. Berit says:

    Thank you for this. I’m a woman who has often struggled with lacking self-confidence. I’m not sure if I ever realized before how much I perceive that lack of self-confidence as a personal flaw. This is giving me lots of food for thought as I move into a new position in my university.

  7. Ellen says:

    I completely agree and am so glad you wrote this, Piper!

  8. Sandra Laursen says:

    Terrific piece! We start the assault on women’s confidence so very early: even toddler girls are allowed to wander less far from the family picnic blanket than toddler boys. Great to be reminded that low confidence is a signal of a problem with our classrooms and other work and learning environments, not the problem itself.

  9. Agnes says:

    Good point! Thank you!

  10. Karin says:

    thanks for this post. I have told my (male) colleagues that my female students come across as less confident and that male students seem to come across as more confident. My point behind this is often that I want my colleagues to look very carefully before they make a judgement about a student – that students who come across as confident are not naturally better students. (Personally, I hope I am listening to all kinds of students, not just to the `shiny ones’, i.e. confident ones)
    Your post made me realise I should spell this out concretely and not just tell them my observation about confidence…

  11. Michael Goldenberg says:

    Excellent and fascinating. Your dissertation is the sort of thing I wanted to write in math education at U of Michigan. Love what you did.

  12. Brian Boyd says:

    Thanks for sharing. This is great, and helpful.

  13. Maryann says:

    I’ve thought about this for a long time, and your piece is very insightful. What a complicated and important issue.

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