Boosting Self-Esteem Won’t Result in More Female CEOs… or Senators

According to a recent article in the New York Times, the dearth of female CEOs in America can be traced back to women’s lack of innate self-confidence. We’re even served a real-life example: “A presenter asked a group of men and women whether anyone had expertise in breast-feeding. A man raised his hand. He had watched his wife for three months. The women in the crowd, mothers among them, didn’t come forward as experts.”

If only the women hadn’t been so self-effacing! Well — that’s one way to understand it. But based on research we did at the Reflective Democracy Campaign, where we work to analyze and change the demographics of political power, I see it differently. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the women in the group, who must work with — and maybe report to — Mr. I’m-an-expert-from-watching-my-wife. Does he seem like a guy who would enjoy being bested by — y’know — people with actual breasts? The fact that he raised his hand while women were present suggests he would not.

What if the women were simply “reading the room?” What if they knew that at their organization, their chances of promotion would be damaged if they threatened the ego of the man claiming to be a breast-feeding pro? That’s exactly what we found when we investigated why women don’t run for office. They refrain not because they’re inherently insecure, but because they’re rational, strategic actors, who correctly perceive the barriers to their advancement and act accordingly.

At 51% of the population, women are less than 30% of our politicians in local, state and federal government. And it’s not because voters don’t want them in office. When women run, they actually win elections at the same rate as their male counterparts. Yet most political gatekeepers — the party officials and major donors who make campaigns possible — cling to the belief that men are a safer bet, and fail to recruit and support women candidates.

To be fair, the Times article highlights similar structural barriers in the corporate world. “[A]fter years of biting their tongues, believing their ranks would swell if they simply worked hard, many senior women in business are concluding that the barriers are more deeply rooted and persistent than they wanted to believe.” Indeed, I had to study the piece carefully to determine how it swung from “there is real bias” to “[m]any women, accomplished as they are, don’t feel the same sense of innate confidence as their male peers.”

Then I found it. Following an excruciating litany of overtly discriminatory behavior by men, including deliberate, resentful sabotage, a cheerful note is inserted: “Yet many women work in companies with public commitments to diversity and clear policies against discrimination, with many men who sincerely believe they want women to advance.” That’s the pivot: many women work for companies and men who say they want women to advance, so if women aren’t advancing, it must be their own fault. In other words, we wish to believe that sexist discrimination is not pervasive and systemic. To sustain this belief, we will blame women for failing to succeed.

The same principle is alive and well in politics, where diversity efforts focus on boosting women’s confidence and self-esteem instead of leveraging data to dismantle gate-keeper resistance, and mobilizing the public to demand truly representative democracy. In either sphere, real change will only come when the structural barriers to advancement are removed. To this end, the Times highlights a promising proposal to tie the hiring of women executives to C-suite bonuses. Because in business as in politics, it’s the behavior of the gatekeepers — not of women — that must change.

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