The Confidence Gap


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.

confidence gap - edmon de Haro

credit: Edmon de Haro

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?


  1. Mary,
    I’ve found that taking action and speaking up is more important than waiting until I feel completely confident. Taking action, even imperfect action, keeps me from being undone when I experience moments of doubt or a slip in confidence. I accept failures and mistakes as part of growth, and always seek ways to restore my feelings of self-worth and self-assurance.

    I’ve always been encouraged and propelled forward by sayings such as this favorite from Martin Luther King Jr., “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Flora — I share your perspective … my life has been characterized by taking action. Not every decision was a good one, but I generally learned something useful from even the bad ones. Probably the subject of an upcoming blog.

  2. As always, Mary, an interesting post posing provocative questions. I guess I would have to say that once again another study points to the importance of women mentoring women, of helping give each other the leg up by voicing support, validation and camaraderie. Someone laughed the other day and said to me, “See how women help other women?” when a woman threw a shoe at Hillary Clinton. Yes, unfortunately, there are women (and I’m not getting into men here) who try to undermine and attack other women, particularly those that show confidence and strength and take a high-profile position.

    Assuming that taking action is rooted in confidence of personhood, then it becomes even more important to support each other as women, as it is doubly hard for us in a society and culture such as ours that for so long has applauded men who speak up, but denigrated women who do.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Susan … I think mentoring is absolutely critical. I never cease to be amazed by women (and men as well) who not only refuse to offer support and guidance to younger comrades, but actually make it harder for them to learn and grow. It is, I believe, an indicator of a lack of competence as well as confidence. If you’re good, you’re not afraid to let others shine.

      I have been a risk-taker my whole life, but my career depended, at every step, on the support of a mentor who opened doors (I had to walk them on my own, of course) and provided guidance.

  3. Mary, once again , you have posed a provocative question that resonates with my own story and the story of so many women who are programmed from birth to be locked into specific roles. As a top level nursing administrator, I always felt I had to work extra hard to combat the gender discrimination issue of the “good old boy network”. I’d like to think the next generation will have more confidence instilled at an earlier age–through participation in sports and higher level positions. Susan’s points about collaboration and support to one another are very important. Thank you for another interesting post. I am almost finished with A FITTING PLACE and find this concept woven in very effectively. An excellent read, will write a review soon. 🙂

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Kathy From my experience, men are just as likely to be “programmed” into expected roles, whether it be professional (e.g., a doctor) or personal (e.g., macho, strong, etc). What I found so interesting about this article was that the difference in performance was not in what you had been programmed to do (or how you felt about it), but what you actually DID. The confidence gap seems real, but the fact is that many of our generation, including you, took risks and went forward.

  4. Great piece, and you have a fun twist on it, connecting it to your novel. I would like to point out, however, that the reported research from Hewlett-Packard isn’t actually research, but rather just an off-hand comment that has mysteriously morphed into an established truth. This doesn’t have to detract from the overall point, and I’ve cited it, too. But it turns out that it isn’t real. I actually unraveled this particular myth in a posting, “What happens when under-qualified women apply for jobs? (And why Sheryl Sandberg and McKinsey wrongly think we don’t know.)

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Curt … many thanks for your comment — and I read your blog above, and several others. The most interesting point to me, was seeing H-P as a “story” rather than a “study” allows people to dismiss a larger issue that the story reflects.

      I was tempted to remove the offending item from my blog, but then your comment wouldn’t make sense. I thought it was more important to have your comment.

      • Hi Mary, Thanks for your reply. I agree that the force of studies is stronger than stories. But if a story can be easily dismissed, just imagine how easily a study can be dismissed, when someone discovers it’s an urban legend! From my perspective, it is important that we make our case based on research, and fortunately there’s lots of good research out there. But we have to be careful so that the whole issue doesn’t get written off as being based on opinion, hearsay and sloppy work. I do blog about research on gender balance at Swing by when you get a chance 🙂

        • Mary Gottschalk says

          Curt, as some who spent the first decade of her professional life as a researcher, I do appreciate the importance of good data and good theory. I visited your website when you first commented. You do have some interesting posts, and I will continue to follow them.

  5. My take-away meshes with your conclusion, Mary: “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.” I too see such decisiveness as an act of volition, a conscious willingness to leave one’s comfort zone. At the moment I am flailing about, trying to nail the narrative arc of my memoir. It feels painful; my thoughts are often nebulous. I have even dreamed that I am driving a house-shaped vehicle down the interstate with terry cloth covering the windshield with only one little peep-hole. But that’s the peep-hole through which I’ll see my story evolve. “Sometimes courage or anger or creativity or the willingness to take a risk is also required,” you mention. Can I bridge the confidence gap? Well, I’ve had some practice!

    By the way, I just finished writing an upcoming post featuring the staircase as a metaphor for progress in life and used the quote from Dr. Martin Luther King that Flora Brown referenced in her comment.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Marian … sorry for the belated reply, but the launch of A Fitting Place has me going in eight directions at once.

      I love your comment on volition. I remember a therapist, many years ago, who asked me whether I wanted to feel right or do the right thing no matter how I felt. At the time I said “feel right,” but I have long since learned that we can’t control how we feel in the short run, but we can control what we do … and doing the right thing goes a long way toward making you “feel right.”

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