For most of her life, the heroine of my forthcoming novel has had difficulty speaking up for herself. In a recent blog, I wondered how many women, like Lindsey, experience failure in their personal and/or professional lives because they “wait to be asked” rather than asserting themselves? It’s hard, after all, to be successful if no one knows what you can do or what you think.
An article in the May issue of The Atlantic, The Confidence Gap, offered a very robust answer to my question. Based on an array of sociological and scientific studies, the article posits the existence of “a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes. 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.” The authors, Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, themselves highly respected and successful journalists, attributed this confidence gap to “factors ranging from upbringing to biology.”
The impressive data they marshal includes:
- A Manchester Business School survey in which women consistently assess their value at 20% less than men with comparable skills and education.
- A joint study with Cornell University and Washington State University in which women who underperformed men in a test on scientific reasoning also skipped many of the questions. When required to answer all questions — to guess if necessary—their scores were comparable to the men.
- A personnel study at Hewlett-Packard that indicated that women applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100% of the qualifications while men typically applied when they thought they could meet 60% of the requirements.
- Differences in the brain chemistry of men and women with respect to making choices, dealing with stress, and emotional memory.
- Differences in the impact of testosterone and estrogen on social skills vs. competitive activities.
- Differences in the impact of socialization—early schooling and sports in particular—on the need for approval and/or the ability to bounce back from criticism or failure.
- Startling examples of a confidence gap as experienced by several of America’s most successful women.
But what ultimately makes this article so compelling is the authors’ ability to frame the confidence gap in a way that any woman, regardless of biology, upbringing, or gender norms, can recognize and address in every day life.
Quoting Richard Petty of Ohio State University, the authors note that “Confidence is the stuff that turns thoughts into action.” In the authors’ view, confidence “is the factor that turns thoughts into judgments about what we are capable of, and then transforms those judgments into action.
The authors recognize that taking action isn’t always easy and it isn’t always enough. Sometimes courage or anger or creativity or the willingness to take a risk is also required. They also believe that, whatever your level of confidence, action reinforces it and inaction erodes it.
I was struck by how powerful this simple concept is. Virtually every example, every survey conclusion, every statistical study had, at its core, a disconnect between a woman’s desire or ability, and the action she took in response to it. Confidence may make it easier to act, but it is not the same as a decision to act. By the same token, a decision to act can build confidence.
In my novel, Lindsey’s challenge is to learn to act and to speak up even if she is unsure? Can you do that … can you bridge the confidence gap?