Criticism, confidence, and imposter syndrome

The TV news anchorwoman was complaining to me over a glass of wine. “I could be delivering the biggest story of the year,” she said, “and all I’d hear from my producers would be, ‘You know, I don’t think orange is your color. And next time, maybe try shorter earrings!’ “

Every woman I know has multiple stories like this. The part that’s so galling is not even the fact that the feedback is critical – it’s that the feedback is based on style, not substance.

I’ve seen this play out live, while facilitating a workshop for a STEM company in which there were 20 managers, 17 of them men. Each table’s assignment was to plan how to negotiate a certain case study, then send one representative to negotiate in front of the group with a paid actor playing the role of the big boss. Table after table sent representatives who failed, until finally one of the women went up to execute, and she alone succeeded in achieving the objective. When I asked what the group had noticed about how she pulled this off, I was shocked: They had not one good thing to say about it. “She just made it personal and chit-chatted!” protested one manager (who failed to meet the objective). “She didn’t sound strong,” said another (whose negotiation strategy was so wildly off base I’m surprised the actor didn’t throw him out of the room). I pointed out that she was the only one who succeeded, and the managers agreed, but their glum looks and crossed arms told a different story – that there might be a social cost to this highly visible success.

Research shows that women draw 40% more criticism than men on performance reviews. Routinely, women’s mistakes and failures are scrutinized more carefully and punished more severely.

What if this disparity in criticism, and not women’s innate trust in their abilities, is what’s really behind women’s so-called confidence problem?

Perhaps it’s not that women are unconfident about the technical aspects of the job we do. It’s that we are going to get criticized on style no matter what action we take. Perhaps the behaviors that read as unconfident – taking a long time to think through the pros and cons before acting, for example, or collaborating so you can talk through the pros and cons - are at worst, ways to delay the inevitable damage, and at best, smart ways to form and test alliances and strategize against detractors.

This effect was not limited to men, of course – research shows that women are just as nit-picky about their female colleagues. So why do women receive more criticism? There’s some evidence to suggest that it’s not that we find more to criticize about women, but that we find it riskier to criticize men. Men might use their power against us - go on the offensive immediately or retaliate later - so we keep our mouth shut. We don't expect that behavior from a woman, and by and large, we don’t receive it.

So, next time you feel like the woman next to you really needs to hear opinion about the way she’s… existing, consider holding your tongue.  

And if you are in the position of leading while female, the next time you stop yourself, wondering if you really want to say or do that, remember Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote: Do what you feel in your heart is right, for you will be criticized anyway.

Kim Perkins