New Book Suggests “Confidence Gap” between Men and Women.

cool girl

In a flashy Atlantic piece, journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman promote their new book The Confidence Code in which they argue that woman are holding themselves back in the workplace due to a lack of confidence. There does seem to be a bit of truth in this assertion; growing up I remember feeling that guys were more self-assured and outspoken while girls quietly listened. Without overlooking strong females out there, I think it is safe to say that our societies cultural standards still expect woman to be overly gracious when asking for what they want. However, at the same time, women are told that if want to get ahead in the workplace they need to act more like cocky men. There seems to be no way to win.

Since the 1970’s, women have made huge strides in society and the workplace. We now earn more college degrees than men do and studies have shown that companies that employ more women outperform their competitors. Woman have proven they are hard-working and diligent (not that any of us were questioning that.) Nonetheless, men continue to hold higher positions of power in the workplace, get promoted faster and are paid more. So what gives?

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In their new book, Kay and Shipman argue that the reasons for this go back to the confidence gap between men and women. They contend that confidence more than competence is what helps people get ahead in the workplace. They point to a study by psychologist professor Cameron Anderson, in which he gave students a list of historical names and events, asking students to tick off the ones they knew. He included fakes such as “Queen Shaddock” and a fictitious event called “Murphy’s Last Ride.” Later in the semester, he asked students to survey each other and found that those who held the most respect and influence among their peers were the same students who had ticked off the fake names. Anderson concluded that it’s confidence over ability or accomplishment that influences other people.

There may be some truth in this. Men seem to charge ahead without hesitation while women often dwell on small setbacks. Studies show that woman tend to be bigger perfectionists and underrate their performance and abilities. They do not apply for promotions unless they meet 100% of the criteria (men will apply with only 60%.) Also, woman more often then men will assume blame when something goes wrong and credit others for successes. But is the alternative to these qualities really that great?

1950's collage

While much of the observations between female and male behavior are fascinating and feel accurate, placing blame solely on woman as a personal flaw leaves something crucial out of the argument. Kay and Shipman briefly note in the introduction that sexism is still an issue in the workplace but argue that the “more profound” issue is women’s “lack of self-belief,” giving little weight to the institutional barriers of sexism that exist in our current society. The “confidence gap” may be less a personal defect than a response by females who have been given no reason to feel self-assured. In just the past year, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a woman can be fired if her boss finds her attractive and the Paycheck Fairness Act was defeated by Republicans who claimed women actually prefer lower-paying jobs. If women are insecure in the workplace, it appears rightly felt.

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To go even further, maybe mimicking cocky males is not a worthwhile pursuit for most woman. While no one would argue against bolstering confidence in girls, there is an argument to be made against unchecked arrogance. Many of the so-called positive qualities of these successful men could be seen as negatives. Prizing confidence over competence, overestimating your abilities and applying for positions you are unqualified for are qualities of the reckless. Still in the throws of a global economic crash brought about by overconfident CEO’s and financial managers, it is shocking that we still idolize these male characteristics and continue coming out with more and more books teaching women how to emulate them. Rather than focusing on the insecurities of woman and selling books that prey on their feelings of inadequacy we should be empowering woman to embrace their own raw confidence that has nothing to do with mimicking males.

Check out a full discussion by the authors of The Confidence Code:

For another take on the confidence gap read our earlier article here x

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