Kat Gordon: Stop telling women to be confident. Tell them to get angry

By Published on .

Is one of these more acceptable than the other?
Is one of these more acceptable than the other? Credit: Photo illustration by Ad Age, Composite images: Michael Reynolds/Pool via Bloomberg, Michael Owens/Getty Images

At a recent ad agency event in Los Angeles. I was in the audience, watching panel after panel of female leaders. Finally, during the Q&A I raised my hand and spoke these words:

"I've heard the word 'confidence' so many times tonight. Why don't women have more confidence? How can we help women be more confident? Yet research shows that confidence doesn't equal competence. There is no correlation between acting like you know what you're doing and actually knowing what you're doing."

At this point, you could have heard a pin drop. It was like I had announced that crying at work was the new power move.

I'll spare you the academic research (but I brought receipts, including this HBR article aptly named "The Dangers of Confidence") and net it out this way: we have mistakenly assumed that charismatic people are confident because of skill, when in reality confidence is often a compensation.

And this blind spot doesn't stop there. We then target women's lack of confidence as problematic – something that needs to be fixed. We cling to the belief that women are just one confidence-booster shot away from the C-suite. And in focusing on that c-word, we miss the more important one: competence.

Women are already competent, but oftentimes not confident. Every woman on that stage in LA knew that. They know they're doing a good job and leaning in like the guidebook told them. Yet somehow they had internalized that confidence was the missing ingredient to full acceptance into The Club.

Why must women change in a way that doesn't correlate to performance in order to make corporate America believe we know what we're doing? Why do we ask women to mimic behaviors disproportionately demonstrated by men – that are proven to be a smokescreen – rather than rewriting the whole paradigm?

(Related: why is Imposter Syndrome training never, ever taught to true imposters? The only people feeling unworthy are those whose worthiness isn't being measured accurately. But I'll save that for another column.)

In an era where everyone is encouraged to "bring their whole selves to work," women are being asked to manufacture or amplify a trait many do not possess naturally. Imagine, if you will, if we took confidence off the table and found more honest ways to measure skill? How much mind space would this free up for women?

That alone would be revelatory. But wait, there's more.

If women are being invited to bring their whole selves to work, there's one emotion we're routinely asked to check at the door. Anger.

Women's anger is not sanctioned anywhere in society. We're unhinged/emotional/crazy when we're mad. Women of color face a double bind around anger. Ironically, anger is the central emotion men are given free rein to express, at the expense of the whole gamut of feelings. Contrast Serena at the US Open versus Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearing.

Demonstrations of female anger are so rare and misunderstood that most workplaces think crying is an expression of sadness. Know why women cry at work? Because we're furious and frustrated and there's no sanctioned way to release it. Our tear ducts take the hit that our fists and voiceboxes cannot.

If creativity spikes when people draw upon every life experience and emotion they've ever had (and I believe it does), then why do ad agencies disallow certain feelings and behaviors while trying to workshop alive others that aren't natural or needed?

I invite you to consider the radical notion that the agency of the future will unleash a tsunami of creativity not by asking people to be better. But just by letting them be.

Kat Gordon is the founder and CEO of the the 3% Movement

Most Popular