Edit: A reply was recently published on PolicyMic to the article below. I agree that the structural issues which put women at a disadvantage should be – first and foremost – of primary concern. Specific to the Katty Kay article on confidence, read on.
A growing body of evidence shows just how devastating this lack of confidence can be. Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels. All of that is the bad news. The good news is that with work, confidence can be acquired. Which means that the confidence gap, in turn, can be closed.
- Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in The Confidence Gap.
I. I read Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s article The Confidence Gap with great interest. I am also guilty of downplaying success and attributing it to factors outside my control, e.g. sheer luck, an easy exam, an arbitrary selection process. I am also guilty of worrying – to unnecessary degrees – about whether I will be properly qualified to do a job once I am given it, or whether I will pass an exam. As this article suggests, it seems that the world of worry is one where mostly women live. It’s something I see in myself, and female friends and family.
“There’s just a natural sort of feeling among the women that they will not get a prestigious job, so why bother trying,” she explained. “Or they think that they are not totally competent in the area, so they’re not going to go for it.” As a result, female students tend to opt out. “They end up going into less competitive fields, like human resources or marketing,” she said. “They don’t go for finance, investment banks, or senior-track faculty positions.”
The advice implicit in such findings is hardly unfamiliar: to become more confident, women need to stop thinking so much and just act. And yet, there is something very powerful about this prescription, aligning as it does with everything research tells us about the sources of female reticence.
- Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in The Confidence Gap.
II. A lack of confidence manifests itself in many ways. Some barriers are probably easier to surmount. I think overcoming a lack of confidence in the context of seizing opportunities, as described above, is a good place to start. One way to motivate oneself to act is to put into context the very worst that can happen if one does act. I may think I am not competent to do a job, but I will always apply. Quite literally, the worst that can happen is I am told ‘no.’ Failure, at least at that initial stage, is not a reasonable fear. Moreover, failure can be a great motivator by offering direction and shaping ambition. Rejection, however unpleasant it may be, is a great way of learning more about oneself. As the authors suggest, it’s also good practice for challenges down the road.
III. My worry tends to set in if I get the job (particularly one I really want): Will I do well? Will I learn fast enough? Am I just qualified on paper? These are questions that I think are both capable of holding someone back, but also propelling someone forward. The outcome likely depends on whether you let this worry get the best of you, and how you express it to others. The brain is incredible, and there is evidence that it can be trained to behave in a way which is less harmful to you and to people around you (what the authors call brain plasticity). In my case, a healthy dose of self-awareness and the ability to tell myself to “stop” has gone a long way to curbing unproductive worrying, which, in turn, has allowed me to focus more on working hard.
IV. Erin Anderson published a short comment on The Confidence Gap in the Globe and Mail yesterday and it goes directly to something I find missing from the debate on women and lack of confidence.
But isn’t the real hazard that we put too much stock in over-confidence (the kind not supported by competence)? To quote an Arabian proverb: “He who knows not and knows not that he knows not … is a fool, shun him.” And yet the opposite happens; nations and businesses too often reward the blowhards, and the results – from wartime to Wall Street – are legion. The failure to distinguish between luck and skill is what sinks many a gambler, and not just the ones in Vegas. In a society today, we much bemoan the vacuum of smart, effective, moral leaders. Consider the qualities elevated in Forbes’ list of the best 100 quotes on leadership: courage and charisma, obviously, but also the ability to share credit, heed the opinion of others, to assess failure, to self-reflect. Not exactly the qualities of a strutting peacock.
Confidence is surely a quality worth cultivating (although, with our own kids, the current worry is that we might have planted the self-esteem seed too well.) But what’s the message here? If only women were as mouthy and cocky (ahem) as men, the problem would be solved. Hardly.
Young women need to learn to demand fair compensation and recognition for their talents and to find mentors who will guide them. That’s a given. But this “problem” can’t be placed solely on them. Society still sidelines mothers and judges women for being too outspoken. Men don’t get called “pushy” or “bossy.” Changing those attitudes requires more equitable workplace policy, clear messaging from the top, as well as reversing institutional gender bias. Seeing through overconfidence to recognizing the potential leadership skills in humility and competence is good for business. Who really wants slick, when they can have smart?
Having a “lack” of confidence is not necessarily a terrible thing. A healthy dose of humility (which I think, if you shift your perspective, is interchangeable with what the authors seem to perceive as a lack of confidence) has been identified as an important trait in the workplace (although it remains understudied). For example, it can help build relationships with colleagues, who might otherwise be intimidated or annoyed by overconfidence. It can allow for a creative space where others can pitch in. It can motivate you to work harder and to continuously seek new opportunities to learn and improve. Society seems to understand humility as an admirable character trait, and I think it does so accurately. After all, a person may be qualified for a job, but more often than not there are other factors, structural and social, that play into success. It’s a matter of finding a healthy balance. Humility should not prevent you from speaking your mind, starting a business, or seizing an opportunity. But, humility keeps success in perspective, which is beneficial in and of itself.