Why women lack confidence
(and men don’t!)
I n aWashington DC restaurant recently, a 1.8m-tall, silver-haired woman, radiating style in a tweed dress and a casually tied silk scarf, made her way to a table at the back of the room. Heads swivelled as diners recognised Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund and one of the most powerful women in the world.
The former French finance minister had found time in her busy schedule to meet the journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, who were researching whether men are naturally more self-confident than women.
They regarded Lagarde, the head of the organisation that fosters global growth and economic stability in its 188 member countries, as a role model. Having reached such a giddy height, she appeared the epitome of female self-assurance.
In a fascinating anecdote in their newly published book The Confidence Code, Kay and Shipman recount how, over a meal of grilled trout and wilted spinach, the 58-year-old Lagarde recalled many moments of selfdoubt as she worked her way up the career ladder, such as being nervous about giving presentations and having to summon up the courage to raise her hand in meetings.
Even now, Lagarde said, she still worries about being caught off-guard and overprepares for every meeting, a practice she has in common with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “We assume, somehow, that we don’t have the level of expertise to be able to grasp the whole thing,” Lagarde said, a comment that the authors note in their book is not an admission many men would volunteer. “Of course it is part of the confidence issue, to be overly prepared and to be rehearsed, and to make sure that you are going to get it all and not make a mistake.” She joked that it was all very time-consuming.
More than ever before the world is shifting in a female direction, the authors say. Women
in theWest outnumber men when it comes to higher education, they make up half the workforce and they are closing the gap in middle management. Studies show that companies that employ large numbers of women outperform their competitors on every measure of profitability. Even so, men are still promoted faster and they earn more. Women remain woefully underrepresented at executive level.
According to Kay and Shipman, the reason for a lot of this is women’s lack of self-confidence. Men have moments of self-doubt, of course, but they do not agonise over their abilities or their failings as deeply or as often as women and they do not let their doubts stop them as often. Kay and Shipman wrote the book, they tell me, because after 20 years of covering politics inWashington they recognised that even high-achieving women are short on confidence. “You would think these very strong and influential women would be brimming with self-assurance, but we kept coming across phrases that suggested quite the opposite,” Kay says. “Women would say to us, ‘I’m not sure I really deserve the promotion that I’ve been given’ or ‘I’m just lucky because I was in the right place at the right time to get this job’’… We thought it was strange because we never hear men talking like this.”
The two women – who also wrote 2009 bestseller Womenomics, which looked at the many positive changes unfolding for women – both admit they are as guilty as the next woman about over-thinking things.
Kay, 49, is the lead presenter for BBC World News America and a regular guest on American news shows such as Meet the Press. She lives inWashington with her husband Tom Carver, the writer and former BBC foreign correspondent, and four children. Shipman, 51, is a correspondent for ABC News and
GoodMorning America, covering politics, international affairs and women’s issues. She also lives in the US capital, with her husband Jay Carney, who is the chief press secretary to President Barack Obama, and their two children.
They have stellar careers yet each of them says they struggle with the female curse of perfectionism.
“I was on Fox News to talk about our book, and the interview went really well, but I said one thing that wasn’t the smartest— 18 hours later I was still thinking about it,” Kay sighs.
The five common mistakes women make, the authors say, are thinking too much, carrying criticism around for too long, staying in our comfort zones, not voicing our opinions and failing to take risks because they carry the possibility of failure.
There is ample data to back this up, they claim. In the book they quote a 2003 study by the Cornell University psychologist David Dunning and Washington State University psychologist Joyce Ehrlinger that looked at the relationship between female confidence and competence.
Men and women were given the same tests involving mathematics or scientific questions and were asked to rate their own skills before the tests. The women rated themselves more negatively while the men assessed themselves as being better than they really were. The actual scores on the tests were almost identical, with women getting 7.5 out of 10 questions correct and men 7.9. But the perception of
Studies show over and overmen who might be underqualified don’t think twice about leaning in
abilities between the sexes was markedly different.
British-born Kay saw an experiment that has been carried out for the past seven years at Manchester Business School by Professor Marilyn Davidson. Each year she asks her students what they expect to earn, and deserve to earn, five years after graduation. Males expect to earn much more than their female counterparts. On average, the male students think they deserve to earn £52,000 (Dh324,000) a year while the women think a salary of about £41,000 (Dh255,500) is fair.
Another study, by Hewlett Packard, found that women will not seek a promotion unless they feel they have close to 100 per cent of the required qualifications, while men think they need to have only 60 per cent. “The men aren’t necessarily fraudulent; they have something that Ernesto Reuben, a professor at Columbia Business School, calls honest overconfidence,” Kay says. “They just say to themselves that they can learn the rest of what they need on the job.
“I think that’s an attitude many women would benefit from,” she continues. “Study after study shows that men who might be underqualified and unprepared don’t think twice about leaning in, while women feel confident only when they are perfect, or practically perfect.”
What are the origins of this confidence gap? The authors say
that male and female brains do display differences in structure and chemistry. Says Shipman, “There’s a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which helps recognise errors and weigh options. It’s been named the ‘worry wart centre’ and it’s bigger in women, so that could be why women have more of a propensity to ruminate, to be cautious and to scan for threats. All of that kind of thinking inhibits easy, confident action.”
There are also hormonal influences. “The main hormonal driver for women is, of course, oestrogen,” the women write. “By supporting the part of the brain involved in social skills and observations, oestrogen seems to encourage bonding and connection while discouraging conflict and risk-taking – tendencies that might hinder confidence in some contexts.” Men also have the advantage of testosterone. “Testosterone probably gives men more of a natural confidence boost because it increases risk-taking,” Shipman says.
As an experiment for the book, both women underwent genetic testing. Both tested positive for the three genes more likely to make them worriers than warriors.
Other factors are at play, too. In the workplace, women who are assertive are often labelled ‘bitchy’ and ‘unlikeable’ by both sexes. Confidence is not a fixed psychological state, the pair say. “Natural-born worriers can overcome the confidence cards they’re dealt at birth because our brains can change over the course of our lives in response to shifting thought patterns and behaviour,” Kay
The good news is born worriers can overcome the confidence cards they’re dealt at birth
says. “Neuroscientists call this brain plasticity, but we call it hope, because it means that we can create more confident pathways in our brains with better habits.”
“One of the most useful definitions of confidence that we came across is that confidence is the stuff that turns things into action,” interjects Shipman. “It’s a belief in one’s ability to succeed, and that belief stimulates action.”
After meeting the authors, my husband and I decided to compare our relative levels of confidence using their online test. He was assessed as having higher than average confidence while I was assessed as having average confidence. The gender disparities are obviously clear in our household. As far as we could tell, the difference in the results was becausemy husband didn’t think there was anything wrong in expressing his opinion often and loudly, while I preferred to take a neutral stance in most situations.
As the authors explain, “Confidence can accumulate through hard work, through success and even through failure. I think what we have hit on is this sense that women are not getting as far, in their professional lives and their personal lives, than they might do if they were not holding themselves back with all this worrying and self-criticism and running around in circles with negative thoughts. We have to stop being our own worst critics.”
Even IMF chief Christine Lagarde admits having moments of self-doubt
Authors Claire Shipman and Katty Kay confess to overthinking things themselves
THE BIG STORY