Ideas in Action

March 7, 2016 | Posted by: Deb (Symons) Martindale

Are you sure about that? On women and confidence

On 8 March, we celebrate International Women’s Day. I deliberately choose the word celebrate because if we reflect on statistics alone on women’s human rights globally or women in the workforce locally, it’s easy to do almost the opposite (which might be, I guess, to sit in a corner and have a cry!).

Rather than put forward yet another long list of figures about women on boards in Australia, or women at the top of their game, or salary discrepancies between women and men, I want to share an article that changed the way I think about myself and women in the workplace.

In May 2014, The Atlantic published an article by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman titled, The Confidence Gap. Kay and Shipman are both successful US journalists who, through discussion with a range of women, and exploration of research, realised that confidence (rather than simply aptitude or opportunity or equality in the workplace) plays a crucial role in women’s careers.

Image courtesy of The Atlantic

Image courtesy of The Atlantic

Former Victoria Police Chief Commissioner, Christine Nixon once told me about the different ways that men and women look at a job advertisement or opportunity (based on analysis by Hewlett Packard some years ago). Typically, men will look at a list of the job’s requirements and decide whether or not they could meet these requirements if given the opportunity.

Women, on the other hand, will question whether they can prove that they already have existing experience against all criteria, and if they find themselves lacking on even one or two points, will determine that they are unsuitable for the gig. I’ve carried this story with me for years, often sharing it with women who talk with me about potential roles or career paths.

The Confidence Gap provided further depth for me on the issue of women and their careers. The lesson above now had even more importance, and I was more focused on putting this significant organisational development challenge in workplace dynamics, equality, talent management, recruitment programs, and culture, front and centre.

Kay and Shipman’s article explores both anecdotal accounts from women in leadership roles, and a range of contemporary research from fields such as psychology, sociology and business leadership. They were surprised to learn that many women they looked up to reported feeling that they were just ‘lucky’ in their career paths or had at times assumed that men who talked more than them, knew more than them. In the case of women like Sheryl Sandberg, she still wakes up some days feeling like a fraud who will be found out.

Sadly, they report, “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.” Study after study reveals that women are more likely to have confidence issues than men. That high numbers of women doubt their abilities while high numbers of men do not.

The authors summarise, “Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.”

The article introduces research such as work looking at the impact of neurological and hormonal differences between women and men. Testosterone, for example, has a direct connection with risk-taking. As a minor digression, if you haven’t watched Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy explain how we can all quickly boost our testosterone and cortisol levels if the situation calls for it, then you should.

I particularly connected with the short summary of research psychologist Zachary Estes’ work. His studies shine a spotlight on the problem of indecision or inaction due to poor confidence AND the huge effect that positive feedback can have on women lacking confidence. I confess that more than once my 360 performance feedback has highlighted my indecision as an annoying trait (I work on it daily).

Further studies reveal that women ‘opt out’ of competitive or selective processes as they lack confidence in their abilities. And this, despite these same experiments consistently showing that men and women have equal ability in practical tests. On the matter of male confidence the authors ask, “Do men doubt themselves sometimes? Of course. But they don’t let their doubts stop them as often as women do.”

Katherine Hepburn, owning it.

Katherine Hepburn, owning it.

At the other end of the spectrum is a note on over-confidence. Kay and Shipman highlight research which shows that men consistently over-estimate their abilities, in most cases, completely unconsciously. Importantly the authors note that studies such as this one by Anderson et al, also illustrate that those who over-estimate their abilities are more likely to be rated highly by their peers.

Finally, I enjoyed reading about the affliction of perfection, which is highlighted as being a largely female illness. “We watch our male colleagues take risks, while we hold back until we’re sure we are perfectly ready and perfectly qualified.” There is plenty more too: Raising girls? See the commentary on the importance of sport. In short, The Confidence Gap is a good read, and an important read.

And so what does this all mean for those of us making public value happen? Well, heaps. It might shed some light on what your organisational development teams can do to proactively address gender balance, or it might help you to add another dimension to the next performance discussion with your direct reports. Perhaps it will inspire you to think differently about why women aren’t racing forward to join your Board or take up your executive posts. It might even help you personally, to take the next big leap you need to take.

To both the men and the women out there in this week of International Women’s Day, if you do nothing else to pause and reflect, take some time out to read Kay and Shipman’s article, and to share it. I am confident that it will be time very well spent.


Unsurprisingly, this article is linked to a book, too: The Confidence Code.

If you enjoy The Confidence Gap, you might want to read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article: Why women still can’t have it all. At the time (2012), it set off huge reverberations and discussion about gender equality in the workplace and in the home. Slaughter has since followed the article up with a book, ‘Unfinished Business’, further reflecting on issues of culture, equity and workplace policy for both men and women. For me, the article was powerful as it really got into the complexity of the idea of finding so-called ‘balance’ and of making tough choices.

Katherine Hepburn, owning it.

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