“Who in the name of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Queen Bey wants to be a meek, chaste, timid woman?!…But I still can’t take a compliment. And neither can any of the other women I know. You know what? I don’t think we’ve been raised to do so.” That was an excerpt from Year of Yes, the breathtakingly intimate memoir of Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and executive producer of How to Get Away with Murder. In her book, she chronicles one year of her life as she takes on the self-imposed challenge of saying “yes” to everything that intimidates or challenges her. During that year, Rhimes realized that she suffered from a complex in which she tirelessly worked to achieve success, but when she had finally reached that pinnacle, Rhimes didn’t believe that she was allowed to bask in the glory of having acquired the most coveted spot of primetime television, Thursday nights (now dubbed “TGIT”).
But was Rhimes alone? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the educational attainment of women ages 25 to 64 in the labor force has risen substantially over the past 20 years. In 2012, 38 percent of this group held college degrees, as compared to 25 percent in 1992. On the professional side, women earn 47 percent of all law degrees, 48 percent of all medical degrees, and more than 44 percent of master’s degrees in business and management. Although women in America have achieved some success in closing the wage and opportunity gap that for so long has separated men and women, there appears to be a different gap separating the two demographics that infuriatingly seems to persist. The gap that just won’t seem to close—that thing that most women aren’t even cognizant of, but which often serves as the defining line between success and failure—is confidence.
In their book, The Confidence Gap, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman discuss the effect that lack of confidence or self-doubt has on our success. They state that studies show,
“[c]ompared 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.” In Year of Yes, Rhimes details her experience at a dinner celebrating women in TV hosted by Ellemagazine. She states:
[A]s the editor-in-chief pointed to each woman and named her powerful achievements, without fail—without fail—every single woman named did one of three things: (1) shook her head and looked away, waving off the words and ensuing applause as if to say, ‘No. Nooo. Not really.’; (2) ducked her head, an embarrassed look on her face: ‘Me?’; (3) laughed. A mortified, embarrassed, stunned “I can’t believe I’m even sitting at this table with all of these awesome people because what she is saying about me is the world’s biggest lie.”
The question we must ask: why? Why are we so hard on ourselves? In our minds, we must be perfect in order to be acceptable. Even when we have caught the proverbial carrot, we don’t allow ourselves to accept the praise and accolades we are due for fear of being considered boastful or cocky. So what’s the solution? Kay and Shipman say in order to “become more confident, women need to stop thinking so much and just act.” Rhimes says, “I’m allowing myself to shamelessly and comfortably be the loudest voice in the room. I try hard to think I am special, to be in love with myself, to be into myself. I strive for badassery.” So next time you question if you know enough to present in front of a room full of onlookers or if you can effectively manage that team, just take a step back and admit it…you’re awesome.
Cindy Unegbu is an associate in Debevoise’s New York office.
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