As a personal therapist I often hear from women in all walks of life that they can’t keep from doubting themselves now and then. Their self-esteem is often fragile, no matter how successful and well-paid they are in their careers. Especially if they compare themselves to the men who dominate the higher echelons of business and government, they think they ought to have higher confidence than they have.

But as boys those men were taught to never doubt themselves and to always strive to excel at competitive sports. Most men don’t know how to be aware of their shame moments and to benefit from the lessons that awkwardness and mistakes can give them. Men notice a woman experiencing self-doubt and either provide reassurance or look down on them for their “insecurity”–depending on how they want to benefit in relation to her. There are chapters in popular men’s manuals on gaining power over women in the dating game that suggest tricks like this: 1. After a high energy first date when he shows her a lot of attraction and compliments and tells her he’ll call her tomorrow he waits several days longer than expected, so she’s already thinking he doesn’t care about her after all;1 and 2. When he meets her at a bar he picks out what’s probably her most undesirable characteristic, like a boney nose or fat hips, and compliments her with words like “I love a strong nose” or “I like a little extra meat on a woman”—so she can’t tell if he’s toasting her or roasting her.2

Apparently it’s easy for men to hook into a woman’s self-doubt, especially if she is surrounded by men at work. When men make up the majority in upper management, the invisible good old boys network can be alive in every woman’s mind, just as African-Americans surrounded by white society expect race-based judgment. Providing reassurance to women that they belong in their positions seems to be a necessary gift that men aware of unconscious sexism can but don’t always offer. For there are still enough men who are not able to interact comfortably with women as equals at work because they have no exposure at home to gender equity.

In some sectors of management when a man loses his job he will look for another job of comparable worth (ie salary and/or prestige) right away. But many women facing job loss will assume they need better qualifications to continue their careers, so they seek more education or training. In fact these opposite responses to job loss can worsen the emotional friction between the sexes at work.

Many men do not pursue more education because taking on a student role with exposure to a teacher triggers unconscious imagery of lowered status. And taking another management position is challenging enough to anyone’s self-esteem. For even if its salary or prestige is apparently equal, a new job includes a new period of training and probation before integration into a new work culture.

Since women are more likely to embrace the one-down student role to reinforce their shaken self-confidence, they are likely to re-enter a work culture with more recently enhanced qualifications than rehired men. These enhanced qualifications may show up on applications and job interviews but not in casual conversation on the new job. Thus men tend to avoid retraining to cope with job change because it may trigger shame, while women are more likely to seek expert help to prepare for future job challenges. In fact, there is a beginning movement in business training supported by the work of Harvard professor Amy Edmondson3, to develop “failure support groups.” This development appears to be spearheaded by women because, like social researcher Brene Brown4, they are more open and courageous in the face of shame.

  1. A client reported this manipulation to me as used by a man to win her in dating competition at an elite British university. It is one of many discussed in an expensive little book by Mystery with Chris Odom (2007) “The Mystery Method: How to get Beautiful Women into Bed,” New York, St. Martin’s Press.
  2. A radio producer and self-declared Casanova reported this manipulative come-on to me during his telephone call to recruit me for a “Dr. Love” romantic advice radio show, which I declined.
  3. Edmondson, A.C. (2011) Strategies for learning from failure. Harvard Business Review. Available online.
  4. Brown, C.B. “The power of Vulnerability” and “Listening to shame” TED talks online.
6. Women and Shame: Insecurity or Energy for Improvement at Work?

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