Modesty does not become her

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When I went to a dinner with friends recently, one of my friends remarked that LinkedIn had notified her that I had been a columnist with Eureka Street for three years. 'Really?' I laughed, 'Time flies when you're frantically writing articles for deadline.' My friend then congratulated me and I immediately replied, 'Oh no, it's nothing.'

Megan Rapinoe celebrates the United States Women's National Soccer Team's gold medal victory in the 2019 Women's World Cup in France during a ceremony in New York City on 10 July 2019. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)The dinner went on, but I thought about the interaction for a while afterwards. Forty-one (now 42) articles over three years isn't nothing, yet my first impulse was to dismiss the achievement, even among my friends.

This phenomenon isn't new; women routinely talk down their achievements. The so-called 'confidence gap', where women don't feel as confident in their own abilities as men, is supposed to be a contributing factor to the gender pay gap. If only women were more assertive, so the thinking goes, then their careers would advance. The world of sport, where a little self-assurance and showboating has never gone astray, provides some case studies on why that reasoning rarely works.

On a float in Manhattan, with one hand holding a bottle of champagne and the other holding the Women's World Cup, American soccer player Megan Rapinoe (pictured) screamed, 'I deserve this!' Within the context of how women's sport has been shunted off as second best for decades, the large pay disparity between male and female athletes, and Rapinoe's own activism, it's clear that her comment (though a bit tongue-in-cheek) was a stance against anyone who told her, and women in general, that they don't deserve recognition for their talent.

Afterwards, however, she faced harsh criticism online and the video of her holding the cup was retweeted by Piers Morgan with the caption 'unbearable'. Morgan has more recently said Rapinoe is an 'arrogant piece of work'.

Compare this to the response to Rafael Nadal's comments on why he got a centre court spot at Wimbledon over the women's world number one Ashleigh Barty. Nadal complimented Barty's game, but also remarked, 'I won 18 grand slams ... In the world of tennis today, honestly, my feeling is today I am little bit more than Ashleigh Barty.' The coverage of the Nadal's comments was pretty mild, saying Nadal had 'reignited debate' and 'had a cheeky serve on Barty'.

I don't think the commentary would have been quite so benign if Serena Williams had made similar comments. And while Barty's humility was praised — she said that all the courts were beautiful — if she did feel snubbed, could she really have said anything about it?

 

"Having more confidence doesn't stop discrimination, nor does it factor in the negative reactions to a person with a marginalised identity when they step outside any narrative that is 'humbled to be granted entry'."

 

Of course, sportsmen get away with brash public personas all the time. Who can forget pro fighter Conor McGregor's famous comments after winning two championships, which only garnered him more young male fans. When it's a man (especially a white man) it's braggadocio, but when it's a woman, it's arrogance.

In a piece about the problems with the confidence gap theory, New York based writer Stéphanie Thomson noted that while women 'might be told confidence is the key to professional success, that's rarely the case in practice. Unless women can temper their assertiveness with more stereotypically feminine traits like empathy and altruism, confidence will do little to advance their careers.' Women who are perceived to be too assertive run the risk of a 'backlash effect', which can also adversely affect their careers.

And further, as Australian writer and editor Fiona Murphy wrote for Feminartsy, telling women to be more assertive essentially puts the burden on women to be 'like men' and fix the institutional bias within their own workplaces. In other words, having more confidence doesn't stop discrimination, nor does it factor in the negative reactions to a person with a marginalised identity when they step outside any narrative that is 'humbled to be granted entry'.

For my part, I often feel pulled between different forces — a Catholic upbringing which emphasises self-effacement, my own fear of seeming arrogant, a capitalist bent on promoting myself, a feminist logic that says feminine modes of communication aren't inherently inferior and my work should be valued anyway, plus some impostor syndrome thrown in for good measure.

Because here's the thing I'm finding the hardest to write: I'm actually proud of what I've accomplished, and I mostly feel confident in my abilities. But I also feel guilty for feeling proud. It's a cycle I can feel working even as I write this.

On the whole, a bit of humility is a good quality in a person, but too often humility is weaponised against marginalised people. When women are criticised for not being humble enough, it's just another way to remind women of their place. I should feel free to own my own accomplishments without the fear that someone is going to jump down from the ceiling to accuse me of being up myself.

I don't know if I see a clear way forward. Murphy recommends keeping a running list all the things you've achieved for each year as a way of reminding yourself what you've done, since it is so easy to lose track of your own accomplishments, especially when you're conditioned to downplay them. We can also do this work for each other, talking up the achievements of the women in our lives, which I like to do anyway, because the women in my life are amazing.

But if we want women to be able to express confidence in their own abilities, we need to create a world that lets them.

 

 

Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.

Main image: Megan Rapinoe celebrates the United States Women's National Soccer Team's gold medal victory in the 2019 Women's World Cup in France during a ceremony in New York City on 10 July 2019. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, Rafael Nadal, Ashleigh Barty, Serena Williams, Megan Rapinoe

 

 

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Existing comments

I would guess we (men and women) can sometimes be proud of not being (outwardly) proud. Therefore, it is a dangerous piece of ground. The two sportswomen mentioned are two very different personalities and this is where mistakes can be made about achievement: does Megan Rapinoe deserve negative commentary because she is outspoken and does Ash Barty merit accolades because she is sweet and self-effacing? I do not think so and I would hope most people can see through the stories presented about the two in the press.
Pam | 22 July 2019


Be proud, Neve! I await 44 and beyond.
Xavier | 22 July 2019


I am an 85 year-old woman who remembers, vividly, being told all through my growing years to "beware of the sin of pride". We were told, constantly, that it was a sin to admit, in any way, that we had talents or were good at anything. With that kind of conditioning, no wonder some women lack confidence.
Pauline Power | 24 July 2019


Congratulations, Neve. I enjoy your articles and it is right for you to be proud of what you do. Humility is not about down-playing one’s abilities and achievements. It is your truth, which does not have to be better than, greater than, or less than, anyone else’s abilities and achievements. Perhaps the real issue here is the constant competition of being the best of the “class” instead of being the best I can be, regardless of how the world judges it.
Corrie | 24 July 2019


Pushing the boundaries of the human evolutionary process requires insight and courage, qualities that the author, Barty and Rapinoe seem to have. Having the savvy to know what fights to choose does not seem to be a universal human quality.
Peter Woodruff | 24 July 2019


A great column but I worry sometimes about such comparisons between the modest and the blatantly outspoken. There are many of the former of both sexes and, fortunately, few of the latter - again of both sexes - although there do seem to be more male shouters and they often get more media attention than their exploits warrant. The quiet achievers deserve much more attention.
Joe | 24 July 2019


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