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Excuse me while I stop disparaging myself

Who needs systemic barriers when self-sabotage holds so many women back?

Posted: 04/20/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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Robert.

John.

David.

James.

Michael.

Peter.

Brian.

Donald.

Kevin.

William.

That's the list, culled from a database of political donations, of the most generous first names in Manitoba. For instance, more than 100 guys named Robert donated a total of $76,000 to political parties in the last couple of years. It's the kind of fun and silly query a numbers nerd might make after all the serious questions are answered, which is exactly what my boss did last week as we worked on a feature about party finances.

Instead of being fun, that list of manly names was deflating, a stark reminder of the atrophied state of women in public life in Manitoba. There's not one woman's name on the list until you scroll through a couple dozen entries.

This should be no surprise. Study after study has shown that women don't donate to parties or buy memberships at the same rate as men. We demure and delay when asked to run for office. We're self-effacing when probed by a reporter for an opinion on the Senate scandal or the cosmetic pesticide ban, saying we haven't been reading the newspaper and couldn't possibly offer a knowledgeable reply.

Men do none of that.

And, it's not just in the political sphere. Last year, I did a series of stories on the alarming lack of women in Manitoba's corporate offices. Just six per cent of board members who govern the province's top publicly-traded companies are women. That's abysmal, well below the also-abysmal national average of about 10 per cent.

I've read and written so often about the stagnation of women in public roles -- as pundits, politicos, business owners, union leaders, lobbyists, deal-makers, band chiefs -- that anger has almost given way to boredom.

In the last few days alone, I threw my hands up at HBO's new series, Silicon Valley, because there wasn't a woman on the screen (except as party background filler in tight dresses) for nearly the entire show.

I listened to yet another discussion on CBC Radio about whether women need "mentors" or "champions" to get ahead or whether the system -- lack of universal daycare, vastly unequal responsibilities on the home front, old-boy culture -- is set up to thwart even the most resilient and ambitious woman.

And, I read a fascinating and widely-shared article by two senior journalists in The Atlantic magazine about how a quantifiable lack of confidence is one key factor, among many, holding women back.

"[T]here is a particular crisis for women--a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes. Compared with men, women don't consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they'll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology," wrote the journalists. "A growing body of evidence shows just how devastating this lack of confidence can be. Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence."

I instinctively chafe at the "lean in" message that underscores The Atlantic article -- that if women just grew some guts and tried harder and behaved a little more like men they'd start to close the gender gap.

But, nearly everything in that article, the academic research and the telling anecdotes, rings true to me. To my chagrin, I see that gap in brashness and self-promotion every day in myself, in my female colleagues and in many women I interview. Typically, when people call to ask if I'll go on TV or speak at an event, I'll say, "Well, I guess, but you should really call so-and-so because he knows more than I do." What I should say is what men almost always say: "Sure! What time and where? And, hang on while I brag about this on Twitter."

A few weeks ago, when the CBC radio show Q was in town taping a live show, I was asked to be on the media panel. I agreed only after gently suggesting a few other names. Then, I spent most of the week dreading taping day and trying to think of creative ways to get out of it.

In the end, I wasn't too nervous and had an excellent time. But later, one of my colleagues chastised me for being quiet as church mouse about my appearance. I didn't tell anyone in the newsroom, didn't tweet it and mostly only talked about it with friends to vent about my anxiety.

Unlike many male reporters, I have built no brand. I barely post my own stories on social media, because it feels tacky and vain. I spent last year on a prestigious fellowship at the University of Toronto, and most people thought I was away on maternity leave. When people ask me where I went to journalism school, I downplay my Ivy League education with an off-handed "in the States" instead of saying Columbia University.

This is stupid, stupid self-sabotage.

It's the same self-sabotage that, mixed with all the significant and systemic barriers to women in public life, produces a provincial legislature with just 14 female faces and a city hall managed by just three female directors. It's the same subtle undermining that makes women a sad minority on the political donor list, and in corporate boardrooms.

Built into the architecture of our economy and culture are so many hurdles for women. Misplaced humility shouldn't be one of them.

So, please excuse me while I tweet this column.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 20, 2014 ??65528

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