The cult of confidence: gender, character and the psychological life of capitalism

Our editor Jon Sutton reports from a keynote at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference by Professor Rosalind Gill.

Professor Rosalind Gill (Professor of Cultural and Social Analysis at City University of London) began her keynote with what she considered a ‘quite bold and unexpected claim’: that we are living in a society where the promotion of confidence, in particular to women, has become ubiquitous. It’s become ‘an article of faith, if not a cult’, Gill warned, and it risks us retreating from inequalities and injustices rather than confronting them.

Look around you. Women’s magazines fill their pages with the ‘confidence revolution’. Experiencing inequality in the workplace? ‘Lean in’, advise business leaders such as Sheryl Sandberg, and feel more confident. Worried about parenting? Train mums to be more confident. Gill feels that such examples of the ‘confidence cult’ show it has become so taken for granted it has almost been placed beyond debate, when in fact ‘we should always interrogate ideas and values.’

Gill argues that this is all part of a neoliberalist, individualised shift that psychologists should be seeking to understand and engage with. ‘I realise I’m at risk of walking away with the “most hated person Brighton 2017” award,’ she said: ‘This is a bit polemical.’ Yet the audience seemed much in agreement that we live in a society which depends upon and helps to foster selves who are entrepreneurial, self-motivated, risk-taking, resilient, and who takes responsibility for the design and outcome of their life – no matter how little control they actually have. Notions of ‘character’ and ‘disposition’ have come to the fore under neoliberal capitalism, promoting ‘resilience’, ‘aspiration’, and ‘confidence’: particularly amongst women.

Now Gill admits that it’s hard to argue against resilience and confidence as desirable traits for anyone. But it’s the promotion of confidence as a solution to inequality and injustice that she objects to: that you should on no account see your insecurity as in any way connected to a sexist culture. Individualised, cognitive and psychic, embodied solutions are almost exclusively addressed to women. Psychologist Amy Cuddy, in her hugely popular TED talk, advises you to ‘fake it til you make it’, and companies expound ‘Love Your Body’ images and discourses while they are invested in getting us to hate them. ‘Blaming women for having the “wrong”’ attitude,’ Gill said, ‘completely exculpates wider culture and hostile surveillance of women’s bodies.’

Concluding with some amusing (deliberately or otherwise) videos, including the ‘Jane Street’ spoof, Professor Gill’s was an inspiring alternative to a ‘fix the women don’t change the world’ message.

- More coverage from the Society's Annual Conference will appear here in the coming weeks and in our July print edition. Find out about our 2018 event

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