Confidence trick

Thursday 23 October 2014

Does confidence matter as much as competence when it comes to a successful career?

Apparently there’s evidence that it does, according to Aston University’s vice chancellor Professor Julia King, writing in this week’s GuardianCarole2. She makes the point that gender conditioning in childhood – labelling dolls for girls and Lego for boys for example - plants the seed of low confidence in women very early on; sending a message that when it comes to hands-on, practical activities society has no confidence in them.

Professor King, suggesting five reasons why women are under-represented in science and engineering, also points to the importance of language. Again there is the way in which certain roles are referred to – he for a welder and she for a hairdresser for example - that reinforce gender stereotypes, but the way in which language is used in the workplace is also important.

Apparently, Professor King explains, women tend to use more cautious, less aggressive language, and often apologise for what they are about to say - “This isn’t quite my subject area, but perhaps you might consider …” - which can be interpreted as weakness and makes what they say easier to dismiss or ignore.

If all of this is true then it may help to explain why women are under-represented not just in science and engineering but other professions too.

Having low confidence and using less aggressive language would certainly seem to count against women working in hotel and restaurant kitchens, according to the chef Tom Kerridge. He was quoted in Radio Times saying: “Girls in kitchens I like. It brings that testosterone level down a little bit, it makes it not so aggressive. But then a lot of that fire in a chef’s belly you need, because you need them to force themselves to be ready for dinner service. That’s probably why there [are] not so many female chefs.”

He reportedly also said: “Girls in the kitchen make blokes feel happy at work. It’s a nicer environment.”

 I’m not sure I like the sound of “fire in a chef’s belly”, which sounds like a rather nasty case of indigestion resulting from too much sampling the menu, but I like even less the suggestion that women can’t be ready for dinner service if they don’t behave the way male chefs do, which, admittedly based on what I’ve seen on TV, seems to involve lots of shouting, swearing and bullying.

Sophie Michell, Executive Chef at Belgraves Hotel and Gorgeous Kitchen Heathrow, responded to Tom Kerridge’s comments in an article for the Metro, pointing out that she is a woman not a girl and suggesting that her team would laugh you out of the building if they heard you say that having a female executive chef made it a ‘nicer environment’. “We all work hard. There’s no difference between men and women here,” she said. Sadly, there are many workplaces where this is not the case.

Going back to Professor King’s article, it is perhaps no wonder women don’t want to appear more confident. In her opinion women are penalised for being “too confident”, whereas it’s acceptable behaviour in their male colleagues.

That might be so but more often this simply isn’t an issue when it comes to men; confidence only seems to matter as much as competence if you are female. But women shouldn’t have to try and be something they are not. What we need is a society in which young women can succeed, as Sophie has done, on the basis of their ability to do the job.