I did a media-training session with a couple of colleagues a few weeks back, to hone our on-camera skills. There were seven of us—four men, three women—and each of us was interviewed, then critiqued, on a giant flat-screen television overhead. I spoke about a story I'd spent months working on, and gave what I thought was a confident interview. So did my other female colleagues.
But when we watched ourselves on the big screen, our apprehension became embarrassingly clear—especially in comparison to our male counterparts. The trainer described me as "sing-songy," my voice inflecting up, time and again, turning my statements into questions. We used self-defeating words like "sort of," and started our sentences with "I'm not sure, but"—doubting our opinions before we even expressed them. The irony, of course, is that we're accomplished journalists; we knew these topics well. So why did we sound so unsure of ourselves?
It was mortifying to watch myself apologize to the camera, but the consequence of that insecurity isn't just bad media. According to a new book about female self-esteem, being cautious and apologetic impacts just about every standard measure of success in the workplace: money, accomplishment, recognition. In The Curse of the Good Girl, author Rachel Simmons argues that women pressure themselves to fit the mold of modest, selfless, rule-following "good girl" for fear of being labeled a "bitch." But it's those bitchlike qualities that help us get ahead—which means we're left with imbalanced salaries, lower titles, and shorter professional trajectories. "In many ways the zeitgeist is that girls are excelling and boys are having trouble," says Simmons. "But it all depends on what you're measuring."
It's easy to look at today's women and think we've come a long way. On one hand, we've reaped the benefits our feminist mothers fought for, and we're encouraged, time and again, to "be whatever we want to be." We outnumber boys in graduation rates, college enrollment, and school leadership positions, and have proven ourselves professionally. Things look promising; to the point that even a beauty queen can climb on stage and declare "there are no longer any barriers against us," as did the winner of Miss Universe this month. (Though apparently she doesn't see the irony of announcing this while being judged and rated on her appearance and poise.)
But all those ribbons and medals don't translate to the real world if women are too afraid to ask for what they deserve. As Simmons puts it, "Girls collect achievements by the handful, but often don't have the confidence to own them." Sure, we may outpace the guys around us in school, but by the time we enter college, we'll have given up our leadership roles. We'll make up just a third of business-school students and barely a quarter of law-firm partners. We invalidate ourselves through speech, body language, and weak handshakes. And we still earn less—77 cents to every dollar—and ask for raises less frequently. "If you look at girls on paper, they're terrific," says Simmons, who runs a leadership institute for girls and has also written on female aggression. "But get them into a job interview or negotiating a raise, and it's another story."
Part of that comes from a lifetime of mixed messages about what it means to be strong. We've grown up watching the Hillary Clintons of the world vilified for being pushy, while our soft-spoken colleagues struggle to rise up the corporate ladder. Society, pop culture and the media all encourage us to be tough but sexy in the process. In a way, we're hybrids of the 1950s woman, who was forced to conform, the 1970s woman who refused to, with a bit of 21st-century porn culture thrown in. We live with outdated expectations about what's acceptable, while pressuring ourselves to achieve it all.
As Simmons describes it, it's a "yes, but" mentality: yes, be a go-getter, but be nice all the time. Yes, accomplish, but don't brag about it. "It is a constant qualification—two steps forward, one step back," she says. "And just as an anorexic might say, 'I shouldn't eat this, it will make me fat,' girls are saying to themselves, 'I shouldn't say this, it will make me a bitch, a drama queen, an outcast.' "
Nowhere is that qualification clearer than in the words of a bunch of middle-school girls, whom Simmons surveyed. Asked to write down how society expects a "good girl" to behave, their responses ranged from "perfect" and "kind," "intelligent" with "tons of friends" to "no opinions on things" and "doesn't get mad." A bad girl, on the other hand, was described as a "proud" "rule breaker" who "speaks her mind" and likes being the "center of attention." Or, to put it simply, all of the things that make somebody a good leader.
How do we reconcile those two extremes? Perhaps by shifting some of the blame onto ourselves. Time and again, studies have shown that girls face pressures that are unique. We feel burdened to please everyone (as reported by 74 percent of girls in a 2006 Girls Inc. study) but worry that leadership positions will make us seem "bossy," (according to a recent Girl Scouts report.) Yet we've been mulling about the loss of girls' self-esteem since the '90s, when Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia became standard reading for every mother.
It seems that while the doors of opportunity have finally opened, we're still having trouble walking through them. "We've created what I call a 'psychological glass ceiling'," says Simmons. "But on some level, we need to say to ourselves, 'Yes, I have the same piece of paper from the same university, but why aren't I walking through the law firm door?'" We've come along way, ladies. But we've still got a lot further to go.