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What "Lean In" Leaves Out: Women Need Structural Change, Not Pep Talks

The so-called "Confidence Culture" is a trap that puts the emphasis on boosting women's self-confidence without addressing the real causes of gender inequality.

We don’t need more emphasis on blaming and changing women, we need to change the world.

We don’t need more emphasis on blaming and changing women, we need to change the world.

Worldcrunch photomontage
Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad

With Valentine’s Day here, advice about confidence is proliferating. British Vogue enjoins women to boost their sexual confidence with slogans like “feel good in your body” and say goodbye to negative talk. Meanwhile, Selfridges promises shoppers a sex and relationship “MOT”, in which “confidence coaching” for women comes as part of the package.

But (like dogs and Christmas), confidence is not just for Valentine’s Day. It is now a 24/7 obligation for women.

Inequality in the workplace? Women need to lean in and become more confident. Eating disorders and poor body image? Programmes promoting girls’ confidence and body positivity are the solution. Parenting problems? Let’s help make mums feel more confident so they can raise confident kids. Post-pandemic relationship sours? Well, confidence is, after all, “the new sexy”. Even the British Army now targets potential female recruits with the promise that joining the military will give young women confidence that “lasts a lifetime”.

The need for self-confidence has become so much a part of our common sense that it is presented as beyond debate. Cast as a feminist intervention, and aimed at the obvious good of empowering women, who could possibly be against it?

But, as we argue in our new book, the problem with these imperatives, programs and interventions – what we call Confidence Culture – is that they encourage us to undertake extensive work on the self and direct us away from calling out structural inequalities that are the real source of the problems women face.

Photo showing pink boxing gloves

Self-confidence is presented as the solution to a wide range of issues across many spheres of life

@golfarisa via Unsplash

A personal deficit?

Self-confidence is presented as the solution to a wide range of issues across many spheres of life: from the welfare system to consumer culture, body image, the workplace, parenting, education and sex and relationship advice. Rather than identifying the root causes of structural inequality, confidence culture reframes social injustices in terms of internal obstacles and personal deficits through, for example, familiar phrases such as “Your lack of confidence is holding you back,” or “We do this to ourselves.”

Take the pandemic’s devastating and disproportionate economic impact on women —including increased unemployment, the scaling back of paid work, and the widening gender pay gap. In response, workplace schemes have offered “confidence training” courses and advice for women, while organisations, life coaches and lifestyle media implore women to believe in themselves, “fill your own cup first” and “remember that confidence is a work in progress”.

Thus, instead of holding government, workplaces, corporations and the education system to account, confidence culture — even if well-meaning — calls on women to work on themselves in order to tackle their impostor syndrome, change the way they think, feel, communicate, hold their bodies and occupy space.

"Your lack of confidence is holding you back"

@martenbjork via Unsplash

Changing the world, not the woman

Confidence culture directs us ever more inward, shifting the responsibility and the blame for social ills onto the shoulders of individual women.

Moreover, with the exponential rise in stress and mental health issues — all profoundly exacerbated by years of austerity and now the pandemic — confidence and self-care apps, targeting women, have boomed. Several reports identified the growth of self-care apps as one of the biggest health and consumer trends of the pandemic, driven largely by women and millennials.

We don’t need more emphasis on changing women, we need to change the world.

In the area of body image, most experts agree that pressures on women are intensifying. Yet rather than critically addressing these punitive and unrealistic ideals, beauty brands are hiring “confidence ambassadors” and female celebrities are advocating body positivity and self-love. From “woke advertising” to hashtags across social media and more, inspirational mantras and positive affirmations addressing girls and women relentlessly promote self-belief and positivity.

We urgently need to shift this emphasis and tackle the structural inequalities that the pandemic has so clearly spotlighted and that the cost-of-living crisis is now highlighting so brutally. We need to challenge the endless encouragement of women and girls to work on and care for themselves (because no one else will). Rather than an individualised and psychologised confidence culture, we need to invest in building and sustaining social structures and policies that support, ensure and reinforce women’s safety, well-being and power.

We don’t need more emphasis on blaming and changing women, we need to change the world.

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Turkey: The Blind Spot Between Racial And Religious Discrimination

Before the outbreak of the Hamas-Israel war, a social media campaign in Turkey aimed to take on anti-Arab and anti-refugee sentiment. But the campaign ultimately just swapped one type of discrimination for another.

photo of inside Istanbul's Eminonu New Mosque

Muslims and tourists visiting Istanbul's Eminonu New Mosque.

Levent Gültekin


ISTANBUL — In late September, several pro-government journalists in Turkey promoted a social media campaign centered around a video against those in the country who are considered anti-Arab. The campaign was built around the idea of being “siblings in religion,” and the “union of the ummah,” or global Muslim community.

(In a very different context, such sentiments were repeated by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the Israel-Hamas war erupted.)

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While the goal is understandable, these themes are highly disconnected from reality.

First, let's look at the goal of the campaign. Our country has a serious problem of irregular migrants and refugees, and the administration isn’t paying adequate attention to this. On the contrary, they encourage the flow of refugees with policies such as selling citizenship.

Worries about irregular migrants and refugees naturally create tension in the society. The anger that targets not the government but the refugees has come to a point which both threatens the social peace and brought the issue to hostility towards the Arabs, even the tourists. The actual goal of this campaign by the pro-government journalists is obvious if you consider how an anti-tourist movement would hurt Turkey’s economy.

However, as mentioned above, while the goal is understandable, the themes of the “union of the ummah” and “siblings in religion” are problematic. The campaign offers the idea of being siblings in religion as an argument against the rising racism towards irregular migrants and refugees; a different form of racism or discrimination.

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