Why It’s Great That Women Say ‘I Don’t Know’

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Of all the gaps facing the modern woman, there is one I’m committed to never closing. It’s the “I don’t know” gap. In studies, women are shown to hold themselves to a higher standard of expertise than men before providing an opinion on a subject, even though they do not, on average, know less about those subjects than men. This is the reason mansplaining is more rampant than womansplaining, and it makes me unequivocally happy to be a woman. But, as with all things female — crying, periods, breasts — some argue that this reluctance to be a total blowhard contributes to men’s dominance in the work place.

Yesterday, the New York Times called it the “I don’t know” problem: If political pollsters give women an “I don’t know” option, their voices “become muted or silent.” The Times also invoked Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know. The corporate feminist self-help book wraps the IDK gap into the larger confidence gap, citing a University of California, Berkeley, business school professor’s experiment, in which his class’s biggest bullshitters (who faked knowledge of faux historical terms like “Murphy’s Last Ride”) had the most “respect, prominence, and influence” in the classroom, regardless of their talent or grades. But as Amanda Hess wrote in Slate, the conclusion for women — be more like these arrogant frauds — is too bleak even for the writers to fully endorse.

I’m no expert, but I’d call a willingness to mute herself when she doesn’t know what she’s talking about — and the corresponding eagerness to hear from those who do — a desirable trait in a leader. I’d even advocate for pretending not to know some things: It makes other people feel important and lets you figure out where they disagree with you without confrontation. Besides, no one knows for sure that traditionally masculine behaviors are good for business; they’ve just been the default for the past few centuries. Our beloved Eileen Fisher recently became “exceptionally profitable,” Janet Malcolm reported in The New Yorker, after trading its male CEO for a “very caring, feminine style of leadership” that involves opaque hierarchies of “facilitators” and ringing brass feelings bells to conclude meetings, not to mention a generous profit-sharing plan.

But you don’t need to like feelings bells to see that telling women to mimic men to get ahead is a trap. Male leadership traits can betray women spectacularly, as in the recent case of Jill Abramson. The former New York Times executive editor’s self-assurance and precise sense of self-worth translated (on a woman) as “brusque,” and “pushy” wrote Rebecca Traister in The New Republic—a “management issue” for which Arthur Sulzberger Jr. saw fit to fire her.

Besides, the IDK gap isn’t really about women lacking confidence — it takes a lot of it to admit you don’t know something. The problem is the dumb, unchecked confidence that comes from feeling entitled to authority regardless of skill or abilities, something which is unfortunately reinforced by everyone else’s sensible humility. If anything, the “I don’t know” gap should give women the confidence to politely but publicly point out when their male counterparts don’t know what they’re talking about, either.

Why It’s Great That Women Say ‘I Don’t Know’