Confident Woman?

Dorothy Jurney had quite a career in journalism. Born in 1909 to a newspaperman father and suffragette mother, she began her career at the Michigan City News and was women’s editor at the Miami Herald, Detroit Free Press, and Philadelphia Inquirer. Journalism scholar Jean Gaddy Wilson said that she “single-handedly changed American newspapers” by changing the women’s pages.

Hard to believe that such a powerful figure suffered from a lack of confidence. But consider this story she told in her oral history on January 16, 1990:

Sometime shortly after I had become women’s news editor at the Miami Herald, Cle Althouse, who was the head of the—well, it’s called human resources now, I don’t know what they called it back then—came to talk with me about my ambitions and goals and so forth. And I said, “Well, Cle, my ambition is just to do the best I can every day.” And he said, “You don’t want to be city editor or you don’t want to be managing editor?” I said, “Cle, why should I try? I would be butting my head up against a wall and I’m not going to do that for my own peace of mind.” … And John McMullan, who became city editor, later told me, he said, “Dorothy, you were being considered for city editor at that time. You and I, and Derick Daniels.” And he said, “You didn’t get it because of the way you answered.”

The next day her interviewer, Anne S. Kasper, returned to the topic.

Kasper: How do you feel about this? I mean, how do you reflect on it? Do you feel there were missed opportunities because you were misjudged and mistreated?

Jurney: Perhaps I’m not that much of a fighter and since it appeared that I would lose any concerted battle to get further ahead, I simply withdrew. This was my nature. And I guess I have to take my lumps if I’m made that way, you see. And I guess this is what I inherited from my dad. Now my mother would have fought. So—c’est la vie.

Kasper: Yeah. And there’s a difficult balance, shall we say, between who you are as a person and how you behave in circumstances over which you had so little control.

Jurney: Yes.

Kasper: I mean, let’s not leave the blame on Dorothy Jurney’s shoulders, let’s rest it where it really belongs which was that you lived during a time when horizons for women were even more limited than they are today.

Jurney: Oh, much so—yeah.

Kasper: And those were circumstances not of your creation—

Jurney: No.

Kasper: —but rather of the culture or the society in which you lived.

Jurney: Absolutely.

And that, dear reader, is the nutshell version of the current debate about The Confidence Gap.

A recent book entitled The Confidence Code, and Atlantic article, by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman have highlighted the existence of a “Confidence Gap” between men and women. As Kay and Shipman argue, in spite of the admirable progress women have made in many phases of life in recent decades, “the men around us have continued to get promoted faster and be paid more.” Though they briefly acknowledge cultural and systemic limits, they contend that “these explanations for a continued failure to break the glass ceiling are missing something more basic: women’s acute lack of confidence.”

Kay and Shipman highlight fascinating research that consistently points to the gap – simply put, women are less confident about their abilities. Further, the confidence gap makes a difference in how women are perceived by others and in the rewards that accrue in the workplace. “Having talent isn’t merely about being competent; confidence is a part of that talent. You have to have it to excel.”

They then consider the sources of the confidence gap. Is it nature? Yes, indeed – brain structure and hormones make a difference. Is it nurture? Yes, indeed, again – experiences in the elementary-school classroom, on the playground, and in sports lead to men being both more resilient and more inclined to take risks, factors that contribute to confidence. Thus, both nature and nurture lead to a vicious circle in which “girls lose confidence, so they quit competing, thereby depriving themselves of one of the best ways to regain it.” Kay and Shipman close their Atlantic piece with the advice that “women need to stop thinking so much and just act.

So, there you have it. Even the most competent women – like Dorothy Jurney – can be stymied in the workplace by a lack of confidence. As Dorothy herself said, “Perhaps I’m not that much of a fighter and since it appeared that I would lose any concerted battle to get further ahead, I simply withdrew.”

Or perhaps, as Jessica Valenti argues, this confidence gap is just a sham. In response to Kay and Shipman’s book, Valenti points to repeated structural and institutional barriers that stand between women and achievement in the workplace and in society. Unequal pay. Sexual harassment. Systemic poverty. Differential treatment in the classroom. Sexual assault. “Women’s lack of confidence could actually just be a keen understanding of just how little American society values them.” Of course, if women are confident, they are likely to be labeled with those “B” words—bitchy and bossy—and that doesn’t do wonders for either equality in the workplace or continued confidence. And here, too, we see echoes in Dorothy Jurney’s story. She was dealing with systemic inequalities and discrimination. She didn’t want to keep butting her head up against the wall and concluded that it was better to just do the best she could every day.

When Dorothy Jurney was telling her story almost 25 years ago, her interviewer pointed to the context of the male-dominated newspaper business of the 1960s. Things had improved by 1990. And they’ve continued to improve since. But just a bit. As Liz Mundy outlines, the media continues to have “a woman problem.” Men have 63% of the bylines in top papers. Men are quoted 3 times as often as women on front pages. All but one of the individual Pulitzer Prizes just awarded went to men. And the problem is reproduced in many online venues. Is all of this just due to women’s lack of confidence? I don’t think so.

Yes, there is clear evidence that nature and nurture contribute to a confidence gap. Would I like to see that change? Absolutely. But I would also like to know that women’s confidence in the newsroom – and other workplaces – will be accorded the same respect as men’s confidence. And I would like to know that we’re not just looking for quick fixes and are instead continuing to pay attention to systemic, organizational, and attitudinal issues.

Fifty years ago, Dorothy Jurney decided to just work really hard rather than to play a game that she didn’t think she could win. Perhaps she was wrong to do that. Perhaps she should have been more confident. Or perhaps she knew that the rules of the game were stacked against her. It’s a shame – and deplorable – that women of today face the same dilemma.

Thanks to the Women in Journalism Collection at the State Historical Society of Missouri and to the Washington Press Club Oral History Project – these archives of primary source material are invaluable. 


  1. Really great piece! I think it brings up so many struggles that women of all ages face. The question, then, is how do we build confidence in women so that they get to a position where they have the power to change the structures that work against them? How do we encourage girls/women to set the bar high and keep going? I think we will only see change once more women “rise through the ranks,” so to speak, and they might only be able to do that with a strong sense of confidence. Lots to think about and work towards, but I think discussions like these are where we get the ball rolling.

    1. I absolutely agree. But I am sad that this state of affairs has changed very little in many decades. But, yes, let’s keep the discussions going!

  2. Excellent article for men and women. It describes how our inner beliefs of who we are affect our decisions and actions. Also describes how the scaffolding of our society and culture contribute to this and why it affects women more than men. You can’t change it till you recognize it and understand it. No blame here – just understanding the context.
    haha, I thought the Dorothy referred to in the title was Oz’s Dorothy, who was forced to take bold action and risk, and overcame her confidence problem. maybe I could insert any name here including mine.

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