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  • Writer's pictureSusan Howell

I Have Confidence! (I Think)

by Susan Harris Howell

“I don’t want to drive late at night in this storm,” she states. “I’ll wait until morning when it clears up.”

“I’ll drive. It’s no problem,” he says.

So what just happened here? Was she lacking in confidence? Or does he have a little too much?

People who study gendered behavior report that in situations often considered “masculine” (like driving at night through a storm, for instance) women tend to feel less confident, men more confident.

When I first heard of this tendency, I quickly decided that women need to work on this. After all, if we were more self-assured, we might take on more challenges without the hesitancy that undermines our efforts.

Then it occurred to me that maybe it isn’t that women have too little confidence; maybe men have too much. Outside of an emergency situation, maybe no one needs to drive through a storm at night. Maybe she is being appropriately cautious in waiting and he’s being foolhardy taking risks that aren’t necessary.

Why are we quick to assume (okay, I was quick to assume) that when research points to differences in the way men and women do things, that women are the ones in error? Should the goal be to align the behavior of us women to the standard set by men? Wouldn’t it make more sense to gauge the appropriateness of a behavior on the likely outcome of the action rather than by whether it’s the “male” or “female” way of doing things?

Being aware of this tendency, I am trying to change things in my own corner of the world. When I discuss gender differences in my classes, I want to present them as just that – differences. I hope I communicate that sometimes men get it right, sometimes women get it right. Sometimes we both get it right (or wrong) in different ways.

Meanwhile, I’d like to know your experience.

Have any of you, males or females, had the other gender held up to you as a standard to which you need to get in line? How have you dealt with this?

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