Are you being held back by the confidence gap?
Written By Sarah MacDonald and originally published on Daily Life.
I recently did some work with two competent professionals. The man was a good communicator. His female colleague was great. But while he knew he was good and was uber-confident, she thought she was terrible and struggled to suppress her inner critic.
I’ve always suspected that men are more confident than women in the workplace and in public life. Every day, I see successful women who downplay their achievements and abilities and display their self-doubt on the sleeve of their power suits. Now, two well-known journalists have spent years researching to discover if there is indeed a gap, chasm or deep ocean trench in confidence between the sexes.
Claire Shipman and Katty Kay argue there is indeed a ‘vast Confidence Gap’ that separates the sexes and they go further to argue that this ‘acute’ gap is a ‘crisis’ for women. They point out girls who do better than boys at school are soon at a distinct disadvantage in the jobs market. While I feel that may be more the fault of institutionalised sexism and inequality than confidence, I do find the work interesting. Let’s face it the confidence gap is far more important than the thigh gap and, far more common.
Kay and Shipman found the confidence gap is not just common but ubiquitous. When COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg tells you she sometimes wakes up ‘feeling like a fraud’ you have to acknowledge it’s a thang. The journalists looked at studies that may signal where the gap comes from and why it develops.
They even took their research into the dangerous minefield that is the brain - pointing out that the section of grey matter that ruminates, recognises errors and weighs options, is larger in women. They also visited the chemistry lab to point out that testosterone encourages risk, competitiveness, power, and confidence. But before your eyes have completed their roll, know this: biology is not destiny and brains and hormones can be influenced by environment, socialisation and upbringing. Look at the fact that girls tend to outperform boys in school.
In fact, Kay and Shipman blame schools for fostering one of the archenemies of confidence. Perfectionism. They argue that little girls get a lot of praise for being good and perfect so they learn to avoid taking risks and making mistakes. Studies show women won’t apply for a job unless they have 100 percent of the skills, while men will apply with 60 percent.
In contrast, boys are more likely to get into trouble at school, banter insults and play competitive sport helping them learn to let failure roll off them. They therefore don’t think so much about themselves and judge their own performance so critically.
I have little doubt women are hard on themselves. But we need to ask ourselves why.
Because, like the Huffington Post response to the Confidence Gap theory, I dislike the ‘lean in’ like tendency to blame women for inequality. I also question whether dropping perfectionism will be a silver bullet that will shatter the glass ceiling. There are more structural and institutional barriers in the world than there are confidence issues.
Besides, what if the lack of confidence we have is due to the boot of sexism and inequality kicking it constantly? Perhaps women are justified in feeling they have to be over-qualified and over-prepared. We may judge ourselves more harshly because we understand a workplace built on male values will do just that.
In the meantime, we need to realise that overconfidence works and, depressingly it’s as important, or more important, than competence. Studies show that those who believe they are great are universally admired and respected and rise to the top. So what’s the answer? Fake it till you make it is the first that comes to mind. Certainly Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy has found it effective. In this Ted Talk she discusses how standing like Wonder Woman can increase testosterone, decrease cortisol, increase your confidence and help achieve power and dominance.
But it can’t be the entire answer. Shipman and Kay admit we are aware of false confidence. I, for one, withdraw from over confidence like a leech from salt. Perhaps faking it too much only entrenches a male model of leadership.
Plus, women who take on the strategies of powerful men are often called ‘bossy’ or ‘bitches’. While they shouldn’t care, it’s hard not to. In a society that expects women not to be ‘too cocky’ they can be punished for what the system rewards. Sounds a bit Catch 22, doesn’t it?
Thirdly, the authors of the ‘Confidence Gap’ found true confidence is not mere bluster. Extremely confident people honestly believe they are fabulous. God damn them.
Wouldn’t it be great to have a society where you can admit doubt and show realistic self-regard? A workplace that rewards both competence and self-awareness as well as humility and empathy.
Clearly I’m dreaming, so in the meantime, I agree that women should turn down their inner critic. Let’s kill the imposter syndrome and drop perfectionism. Let’s acknowledge weakness and work on strength. Let’s stand like Wonder Woman and fake it till we feel it. As Kay and Shipman suggest, let’s focus on strong will, courage, action and hard work to generate success and failure. And while we are there let us encourage other women and our daughters to try, to fail and to succeed.