Is #metoo finally the sense of agency women need?

I drafted an earlier version of this post last month, before Harvey Weinstein and before women everywhere shocked men everywhere with just how much casual harassment and assault takes place every day, and so much in the workplace.

I was writing a post about “women and confidence” — the quotes indicating the idea of “women and confidence” — following a talk I had given on “how to build and maintain confidence” to a group of “empowered women in tech.” I’d been bothered by the notion that we were still talking about women needing confidence, how it had become a bit of a cliché, and how probably the best way to make a woman feel less confident is to tell her she needs it, or more of it, to succeed.

There is a whole industry exploiting this idea. Call it the Women and Confidence Industrial Complex: conferences, workshops, books, blogs — all exhorting women to practice leaning in, ruling the world, exercising bravery.

I admire anyone who has made it their work to promote the success, health and well-being of women. But to some degree, the bigger sense of it is a bit of a racket; confidence is such a loaded term, implying necessary tangible success, as well as core identity: If you’re not confident, you’re not X. Perhaps X as male? A 2011 Stanford study described confidence as a “masculine trait,” which makes sense, since, to be honest, most of this is about women finding equal footing with men in the workplace. Many studies, including the widely touted “Confidence Code” book that came out in 2014, emphasize that women must have confidence to succeed in the world of work. But not too much confidence. Huh?

While the Women and Confidence Industrial Complex (hereupon known as WoCIC, pronounced “whoa-sick”) relies on studies like this, it’s a feeling, one that can be fleeting, very subjective and arbitrary, and gender-specific.

Seeking confidence is exhausting and often more disheartening than it should be, as its premise suggests that it is terribly hard to achieve, but necessary. It is like the notion of happiness that if you achieve it, everything else will fall into place.

But maybe there is another way, and #metoo may have given us the right moment for this. My proposal is that more success with less of an emotional toll can be attained through a sense of agency.

“Confidence” is about a feeling; “sense of agency,” in my view, is about doing. A sense of agency means seeing how your actions impact your own life. It means understanding how you are control of what happens to you, not a passive recipient.

To be sure, being harassed is the opposite of agency. But coming forward and claiming publicly that it happened gives women a sense of control — I would bet many of these women still don’t feel super confident, but they did do it, they did speak out.

“A sense of agency” and “confidence” are not incompatible, but a sense of agency puts the focus on the action, not a requisite emotion necessary to execute a task.

And perhaps it is more gender-neutral, as well. To that point, the Stanford study revealed that women (and men) who were stronger “self-monitors” had greater success than those with more of the “masculine traits” such as confidence. “Self-monitor” is different from a sense of agency, but it is more similar than confidence.

In one anecdote in an Atlantic article highlighting their book “The Confidence Code,” Claire Shipman and Katty Kay discuss their own complicated experiences with confidence and success, noting that each has attributed her career trajectories in no small part to “luck.” They credited their success to factors beyond their control.

It’s okay, though, to feel “lucky” when you achieve the success you seek; for any of us, it can come as a delight when you attain a goal. But isn’t it better to say, “I did that.” It’s not always easy. I have some personal experience with this; I used to find those three words annoying: When she was around, my mother, whenever I achieved various successes, would say, “You did that. You did.” Frankly, I just wanted to hear “congrats” or “good job” at that particular moment. But she had offered something better that I didn’t realize at the time; she gave me a sense of agency.

I think that’s what women are doing now with #metoo. We’re doing, not just feeling.

In my talk last month, I referenced the comedian Mindy Kaling, who wrote about how action leads to confidence leads to success: “Work hard, know your shit, show your shit and then feel entitled.” Just do it, says Nike.

I think I’d give fewer talks to groups and individual counseling if we all had a stronger sense of agency. I may not be saying something wholly different from the confidence people, but I think we would be better served moving away from such a loaded term toward something more practical, achievable and accessible. If #metoo is the example, we can see how a sense of agency just might change the world.