Why women lack con­fi­dence

(and men don’t!)

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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


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