Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, journalists and authors of Womenomics, interviewed successful women in a range of fields including sports, politics and business – and discovered that many, even the most successful, lack confidence. The authors investigate whether men really have more confidence than women. They find that confidence trumps competence at work. For example, women often lack the confidence to voice their opinions, even though such reticence hurts their chances for promotion. Women prove especially reluctant to negotiate for better salaries and often ask for less money than men request. After interviewing geneticists for insight, the authors report that confidence has a strong genetic component, though environment also matters. While much of their treatise is discouraging, it does offer hope. With effort, you can become more confident. Boost your confidence by speaking up and taking strategic steps; do not overthink your decisions. getAbstract recommends the authors’ insights and research to women – and men – who struggle with a lack of confidence, and to parents who want to instill confidence in their children.
Despite women’s great societal strides, their self-doubt persists. Women believe that hard work and effort pay off, even though that isn’t always the case. Many women have seen less-competent men receive promotions and higher earnings. Confidence seems to trump competence; research found that “success correlates more closely with confidence than it does with competence.”
In some arenas, like basketball, you can’t fake confidence. Monique Currie and Crystal Langhorne, forwards for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, are commanding on the court. But Currie admits to struggling with a lack of confidence. As she says, “You have to believe in what you can do and you have to believe in your ability.” Langhorne feels each loss and hates to let her fans down, but adds, “With guys, if they had a bad game, they’re thinking, ‘I had a bad game.’ They shrug off the loss more quickly.”
“The Economist…called female economic empowerment the most profound social change of our times.”
The Mystics brought in coach Mike Thibault to invigorate the team. Having coached both men and women, Thibault has a unique perspective. He finds that “the propensity to dwell on failure and mistakes” creates female players’ “biggest psychological impediments” and often will “directly affect performance and confidence on the court.”
“Women earn on average 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Four percent of CEOs in the Fortune 500 are women. Twenty of the 100 United States senators are women and…that is celebrated as a record high.”
The military demands confidence. Consider Officer Michaela Bilotta, one of 14 classmates at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, who served on the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team. These specialists deactivate chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in hot spots around the world. Yet when researchers lauded Bilotta, she demurred as if she somehow hadn’t earned her position, despite knowing that she did.
United States Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, who served under President George W. Bush, emigrated from Taiwan to the US at age eight. While confident, she says, “My fear was that the newspapers would have blaring headlines like: ‘Elaine Chao Failed, Disgraced Whole Family’.” Chao arrived in New York speaking no English , so she was an easy target for teasing. “Some adversity, if it doesn’t break you, does make you stronger,” she says.
“Ruminating drains the confidence from us. Those negative thoughts and nightmare scenarios masquerading as problem solving, spin on an endless loop.”
Confidence and Coin
In 2011, researchers at the UK’s Institute of Leadership and Management asked British women how confident they were in their professions. Fifty percent reported feelings of self-doubt compared to fewer than a third of the men interviewed. American women don’t fare much better. Carnegie Mellon economist Linda Babcock, author of Women Don’t Ask, discovered that men negotiate their salaries four times more often than women; and when women discuss their salaries, they ask for 30% less than men request. Professor Marilyn Davidson of England’s Manchester Business School found similar results. She surveyed her students about their expected salaries five years after graduation. Her male students think they deserve to earn far more than her female students anticipate earning. “Women effectively believe they are 20% less valuable than men believe they are.”
“The confidence gap is a chasm, stretching across professions, income levels and generations, showing up in many guises, and in places where you least expect it.”
In 2009, Cameron Anderson, an expert on overconfidence who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, asked 242 students about historic events and names. Some were real; others, he made up. The students who misidentified the most made-up people or incidents as actual were those with the “highest social status.” This indicates that “when people are confident, when they think they are good at something, regardless of how good they actually are,” it affects their “nonverbal and verbal behavior.”
Confidence also can explain why some employees are promoted more quickly. In Anderson’s study, lack of competence didn’t seem to matter. His most-confident students didn’t alienate their classmates even when they made mistakes because they genuinely believed in themselves.
“Confidence is not…feeling good about yourself, saying you’re great and can do whatever you want to do.”
Confidence and Genetics
Neuropsychologist Steve Suomi of the US National Institute of Health has spent more than 40 years studying nature-versus-nurture issues by tracking the personality traits of rhesus monkeys. Like humans, monkeys exhibit a range of emotions. Humans share 90% of their genes with monkeys, but one of these shared genes particularly fascinates researchers: the serotonin transporter gene, SLC6A4, which “directly affects confidence.” Serotonin is a hormone that influences mood and behavior, and having higher levels of it produces more calm and happiness. This gene comes in different forms. A gene with two short strands links to poor processing of serotonin; a gene with one long strand and one short strand is better, but not great. A gene with two long strands processes serotonin most efficiently. Those monkeys with longer strands of SLC6A4 were more social, took more risks and showed leadership traits. Monkeys with shorter strands were less social, more fearful and afraid to take risks. In studies of how much environment affects these monkeys, Suomi placed monkeys whose genes indicated they’d be anxious or fearful with nurturing foster mothers, and the monkeys overcame those negative traits. These monkeys were “genetically challenged,” but they did well when great mothers raised them.
“Of all the warped things that women do to themselves to undermine their confidence…the pursuit of perfection [is] the most crippling. Nothing kills confidence like perfectionism.”
Suomi and other experts, such as Kings College, London, behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin, agree that confidence partially links to genetics. Plomin asked students to complete 15,000 sets of standard IQ tests, and tests in math, writing and science. He then asked them to rate their confidence levels in each subject. “The students’ self-perceived ability rating, or SPA, was a significant predictor of achievement, even more important than IQ.”
Genetic research into personality traits like confidence is in its infancy. Finding a gene that relates to confidence is unlikely, but gene combinations can create different cocktails of personality and intelligence traits. Confidence also involves cognitive function. Apparently, what matters is not whether people can do a task, but whether they believe they can do it.
“When praised, reply, ‘Thank you. I appreciate that’.”
Suomi’s research confirms the “orchid theory” – that some monkeys and humans develop sensitized genes and become more sensitive to their environment. Developmental psychologist Bruce Ellis and developmental pediatrician W. Thomas Boyce compare children to dandelions that can withstand any environment. New research suggests that adults should view “nondandelion children,” in effect, “as orchids: trickier to raise, but if nurtured in the right environment, able to excel beyond even their sturdier dandelion counterparts.”
“Confidence that is dependent on other people’s praise is a lot more vulnerable than confidence built from our own achievements.”
Double Standards and Self-Sabotage
School is where girls learn to “keep their heads down, study quietly and do as they’re told.” While school rewards girls for being good, staying calm and not fighting, it encourages boys to be messy, explore and take risks. Girls shun “making mistakes and taking risks,” though that behavior is crucial for building confidence. Boys chalk failure up to a lack of effort; girls tend to think they lack skills.
Research praises the confidence-building benefits of sports. In 1972, the US passed the Title IX law to ensure equal funding for male and female athletic programs in public schools. Studies of the law’s impact found that “girls who play team sports are more likely to graduate from college, get a job and be employed in male-dominated industries.” The research uncovered “a direct link between playing sports in high school and earning a higher salary in later life.” Today, more girls play high school and college sports than ever, but they also quit more quickly than boys do. Because teenage girls often experience low self-esteem, they’re more likely to drop out of athletic activities. This is “a vicious circle: They lose confidence so they quit competing, thereby depriving themselves of one of the best ways to regain it.”
“By failing a lot…when we’re young, we…are better-equipped to think about the big, bold risks later.”
The world of work not only doesn’t reward women for being polite and quietly working hard, it actively punishes them for being aggressive. Linda Hudson, president and CEO of BAE systems, the US division of the global defense contractor, says that if women enter “the boss’s office with unsolicited opinions, speak up first at meetings and give business advice above our pay grade, we are either disliked or…labeled ‘a bitch’.” People assume men are “competent until they prove otherwise.” This assumption works “the other way around” for women. Psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson call Hudson’s dilemma the “stereotype threat,” a phenomenon they researched in the mid-1990s while investigating why African-American college students underperformed compared to white students. The same bias affects women, especially in science and math, in which, stereotypically, women don’t do as well as men.
“The beauty is that when you fail fast or early, you have a lot less to lose.”
The Cost of Likability
Women often sabotage themselves at work because they want to be liked. This quest for likability is costly, resulting in a $5,000 pay gap between young men and young women in their first five years of work after college. Because women hesitate to negotiate for better salaries, their pay gap widens over the years. Women tend to overthink situations. This rumination affects their professional and personal lives. Most women can relate to dissecting fights with friends or lovers or second-guessing simple decisions, such as getting a new haircut.
“The New Nurture”
Other cultures take a different view of parenting than Americans, and often encourage more independence and risk taking. Jane Wurwand, the British leader of the Dermalogica skin care company, walked home from school alone at age four and a half. Christine Lagarde, the French managing director of the International Monetary Fund, babysat her younger brothers when she was four. Both say their parents’ early confidence helped them. To give children confidence, those who nurture them need “to toughen up, to shake off that warm and fuzzy image.”
“We may not realize it but we all give confidence inordinate weight and we respect people who project it.”
For 20 years, the self-esteem movement has preached that everyone is wonderful and deserves a prize. But parents bolstered their kids’ self-esteem so much that children began to fear failing. Parents have conditioned kids to believe they can do anything, and so they run into problems as adults when reality collides with that perception. Gradually exposing kids to risk builds confidence, says University of Michigan psychologist Nansook Park. He advises parents to talk to their kids about their successes and failures, and to encourage them to court risk in small steps. When they fail, ask what they learned and how they can improve their results next time.
“What it means to be confident – and what it does for us – that’s the same for women as it is for men. Doing, working, deciding and mastering are gender neutral.”
Children learn more from seeing your example than from being told. Don’t fall into the trap of rewarding “good girl” behavior. Girls quickly pick up subtle clues that being quiet and neat wins your approval. This can lead to low self-confidence and an overreliance on external approval. High-achieving girls can be prone to perfectionism. To diminish perfectionism, offer moderate, specific praise. Don’t hide from your mistakes; laugh at them and show them to your daughters.
Boosting Your Confidence
Boost your confidence by failing fast, stepping out of your comfort zone, not overthinking and by reframing negative thoughts. Failing fast, a business strategy that’s popular in technology circles, applies to everyday life. Instead of trying to perfect a single product, put a bunch of products out there to see what consumers buy, and trash the rest. Take action even if it means opening yourself up to failure. Overanalyzing every word, sound or gesture won’t change a situation’s outcome. Realize that most people focus on their own drama and aren’t worrying about what you do.
“Even if your daughter likes the pink Legos or lacy ballerina dress, there’s no reason you can’t steer her toward math and science at the same time.”
Avoid “negative automatic thoughts,” such as, “That dress was too expensive. Why did I waste my money?” or “I’ll never finish this project; I knew I wasn’t up to it.” Write down your automatic negatives and reframe them in a neutral or positive way. Reframing will be awkward at first, but practice until it becomes a habit.
Build confidence by meditating, being grateful, breaking larger tasks down into smaller ones, getting more sleep, exercising and socializing. At work, practice taking “power positions,” like sitting up straight, nodding your head, and taking a seat at the table rather than in the corner of the room. Finally, be yourself. Be authentic.
Katty Kay is BBC World News America’s Washington, DC, anchor and contributes to NBC’s Meet the Press. Claire Shipman covers international affairs and women’s issues for ABC News and Good Morning America. They wrote Womenomics: Work Less, Achieve More, Live Better.
It's been proven that “being yourself” has all sorts of benefits. Authenticity is known to contribute to both overall well-being and engagement. One study on the benefits of authenticity at work found that 80% of self-reported authentic employees believe authenticity improves the workplace.