the confidence gap vs. the badass feminine



I tweeted a link to the Atlantic article proclaiming that men are more confident than women.

A woman tweeted wryly, In other news; water is wet.

@justinemusk in other news; water is wet.

— Melissa (@liminalworks) April 28, 2014

No kidding.

Think about the kind of body language that signals confidence.

Confident people take up space: with their body, their presence.

They assert their opinions. They’re not afraid to interrupt (although hopefully they are not obnoxious blowhards). They’ll cross their arms across their chest; if they’re sitting down, they’ll steeple their fingers or put their hands behind their head. They are not overly expressive; they are calm, even stoic. They do not engage in overly approval-seeking behavior (excessive smiling, constant nodding, head tilting, flirting).

In other words, confident body language is coded as masculine.

I honestly don’t believe that feminine badass has to be an oxymoron. The fact that our culture interprets ‘feminine’ as weak and submissive creates this belief that women have to become imitation men in order to be powerful.

I suspect it’s because of a confusion of sex and gender and body language, as if submissive body language is innately feminine and strong confident body language is innately masculine. Men and women both can find themselves in positions of power or powerlessness — and their body language changes accordingly. Women who act one way in front of other women might show up completely differently in a room filled with men (and vice versa).

As many women will be quick to tell you, a lot of so-called traditional ‘femininity’ is a performance, just like a lot of ‘natural beauty’ relies on fillers, makeup, style, personal trainers, strict dieting, expensive skincare, teeth bleaching, laser hair removal, good lighting – and I haven’t even touched on plastic surgery yet.

Behavior that is aimed to please, placate, manipulate and soothe can be just as learned as putting on a pair of fake eyelashes.

Maybe women are biologically wired to nurture relationships and keep the peace – or maybe women have been acting the way people act when their survival depends upon the whims, moods, decisions and general approval of those who have more physical, social and/or economic power than they do.

Could you imagine Oprah – one of the most confident and powerful women on the planet – tilting her head, batting her eyes, playing with her hair, shrinking into the cushions, lifting the end of every sentence into a question mark as she interviews some major movie star (or watches Tom Cruise jump up and down on her couch)?

Maybe ‘femininity’ gets so commingled with ‘behavior aimed at catching and keeping a man’, that people have difficulty perceiving ‘feminine’ in a way that exists independently of men:

“In the eighties, a male writer conducted a survey to see how a thousand different people defined femininity. Men of middle age and older, those most invested in the patriarchal tradition, defined femininity as related to men – women were most womanly while being admired by and attractive to men or during heterosexual sex. Male interviewees of any age didn’t think of women as feminine while giving birth or nurturing children, only in relation to themselves. Without men, women appear to fade from sight.” — Valerie Estelle Frankel

I don’t say this to be critical of men. Traditional definitions of what it means to ‘be a man’ are equally problematic.

But I’m thinking of something I said in my TEDx speech, which was about my own troubled history with confidence and self-esteem. We have a way of becoming what we think we’re only pretending to be.

In this extremely popular TED speech, body language expert Amy Cuddy points out that influence flows both ways: the way you perceive yourself not only impacts your body language, your body language impacts how you perceive yourself.

In other words, are we ‘feminine’ because we’re submissive, or are we taught to be submissive in order to be feminine?

And if we’re so often acting submissive in the presence of people we feel the need to please (be they of either gender), how does that impact the way we see ourselves, or what we believe about femininity itself?

I don’t think anybody would consciously define confidence as ‘masculine’; I know I certainly don’t.

Confidence is about being comfortable in your own skin.

It’s about expressing yourself in an authentic and masterful way.

It’s about feeling entitled to a place at the table, to a voice, to a vote.

It’s about how you relate to your body, your self, other people, the world at large.

Confidence is power, necessary for creative achievement and professional success. This might be why society encourages some people to naturally have more of it than others. This might also be why confidence in women tends to look a lot like courage.

Apr 29, 2014

6 comments · Add Yours

Dear Justine,
I have loved the expression ‘badass feminine’ from the first time I read it — actually it was what made me subscribe to your letter in the first place :) Thank you for this article! I totally agree with every word!
Carli B


“In other words, are we ‘feminine’ because we’re submissive, or are we taught to be submissive in order to be feminine?”

In my experience it was the later – my childhood friends and female relatives would always chide my behavior as “unlady like”. They wanted me in a more ‘feminine’ role; and to them that meant being smaller, quieter and more agreeable. (And also to stop wearing heavy metal band shirts 5 sizes too big. I have been able to kick that last one)

The people I have around me nowadays love me for my “unlady like” behavior. And I find myself being able to be more “feminine” (peace-keeping, nurturing, emotional) around them.


I read this confidence article in The Atlantic a week ago. Then I read all the comments people left, which really frustrated me, since most people seemed to accept the general view that men are—by nature and handed to them by society—more confident.

I’m sorry, but I flatly disagree with the whole premise. I’ve seen women who are more confident than men, and men who are less confident than women. I’ve also seen very confident people (both men and women) have moments of insecurity. The article seems to be addressing an alpha male type rather than all men. It also completely misses addressing the alpha female (because acknowledging this would make the article irrelevant).

The bottom line is that no matter how much BS someone has thrown you for being weak because you were born female, you have to give them the middle finger—literally or figuratively—and move on. That’s confidence, and that’s something anybody can do. Do you care? Should you care? Learn the difference, move on, and don’t dwell on it. (Or not…and give someone the power to suggest you lack confidence because of your sex.)


“We have a way of becoming what we think we’re only pretending to be.” Yes, for the better: self-assured, undaunted, stalwart! Your voice is so precious in this changing mind-set!


This is intriguing, as I’m fascinated by body language, and love to watch people in the public eye, or just the grocery store.

I’m reading a wonderful biography of Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s niece. She had his brilliant wit, and was a frequent, admired guest a literary salon in Paris overseen by the American heiress (and Dolly’s lover) Natalie Barney. Apparently Dolly sat quietly, her hands in her lap, never gesticulating, yet was completely self-confident, charming, sophisticated, had a beautiful speaking voice. She mesmerized the salon with amusing stories and wit. This was over 80 years ago, but interesting to me how a woman of that era (or any era) might command attention and respect in a quiet, dignified fashion.


Alpha females are be definition a small minority of the general female population. They might be the exception that proves the general rule — whatever you take that ‘rule’ to be.


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