For once, tell the men to do the self-improvement

If parents were giving their children virtue names today, as the Puritans used to do, nobody would choose Charity, Grace or Patience. Instead, half of all baby girls born in America would be named Empowerment or Assertiveness.

For women in this cultural moment, assertiveness is perhaps the ultimate in aspirational personal qualities.

At the nexus of feminism and self-help lies the promise that if we can only learn to state our needs more forcefully - to "lean in" and stop apologising and demand a raise and power pose in the bathroom before meetings and generally act like a lady boss (though not a regular boss of course; that would be unladylike) - everything from the pay gap to mansplaining would all but disappear.

Women, be more like men. Men, as you were.

There are several problems with this fist-pumping restyling of feminism, most obviously that it slides all too easily into victim blaming.

The caricature of the shrinking violet, too fearful to ask for a raise, is a handy straw-woman for corporations that would rather blame their female employees for a lack of assertiveness than pay them fairly.

There is also the awkward issue that it turns out to be untrue. Research shows that despite countless attempts to rebrand the wage gap as a "confidence gap", women ask for raises as often as men do. They just do not get them.

But even if we leave these narrative glitches aside and accept the argument that female unassertiveness is a major cause of gender inequality and that complex, systemic problems can be fixed with individual self-improvement, we are still left with a deeply sexist premise. The assumption that assertiveness is a more valuable trait than, say, deference is itself the product of a ubiquitous and corrosive gender hierarchy.

"Women, improve yourselves" has always been a baseline instruction of both the world at large and the self-help movement. We assume without question that whatever men are doing or thinking is what we all should be aiming for.

Now the assertiveness movement is taking this same depressingly stacked ranking system and selling it back to us as feminism. We in turn barely question whether the male standard really is the more socially desirable or morally sound set of behaviours or consider whether women might actually have had it right all along.

In the workplace, probably unsurprisingly to many women who are routinely talked over, patronised or ignored by male colleagues, research shows that rather than women being underconfident, men tend to be overconfident in relation to their actual abilities. Women generally are not failing to speak up. The problem is that men are refusing to pipe down.

Take apologising, the patient zero of the assertiveness movement. Women do too much of it, according to countless op-ed essays, books, apps and shampoo advertisements.

Rarely in the course of the anti-apologising crusade do we ever stop to consider the social and moral value of apologies and the cost of obliterating them from our interactions.

Apologising is a highly symbolic and socially efficient way to take responsibility for our actions, to right a wrong and clear space for another person's feelings. It is a routine means of injecting self-examination and moral reflection into daily life.

Indeed, many of our problems with male entitlement and toxic behaviour could well be traced back to a fundamental unwillingness among men to apologise, or even perceive that they have anything to apologise for.

The energy we expend in getting women to stop apologising might be better spent encouraging men to start. So perhaps instead of nagging women to scramble to meet the male standard, we should instead be training men and boys to aspire to women's cultural norms, and selling those norms to men as both default and desirable.

To be more deferential. To reflect and listen and apologise where an apology is due (and if unsure, to err on the side of a superfluous sorry than an absent one). To aim for modesty and humility and cooperation rather than blowhard arrogance.

It would be a challenge, for sure. Which is why we need to try because until female norms and standards are seen as valuable and aspirational as those of men, we will never achieve equality. Promoting qualities such as deference, humility, cooperation and listening skills will benefit not only women, but also businesses, politics and even men themselves.

So human resource managers, self-help authors and slogan writers, use your platforms and your cultural capital to ask that men be the ones to do the self-improvement for once.

Teach them to assess their own abilities realistically and modestly. Tell them to "lean out", reflect and consider the needs of others rather than assertively restating their own. Sell the female standard as the norm.

Perhaps some capitulation poses in the bathroom before a big meeting might help.


• Ruth Whippman, author of America The Anxious, is working on a book about raising boys.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 20, 2019, with the headline 'For once, tell the men to do the self-improvement'. Print Edition | Subscribe