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May 2014


“The Confidence Gap”


by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman (The Atlantic, April 2014)


What are the big take-aways?


In Kay and Shipman’s brilliant encapsulation of the current research (sociological, genetic, psychological, neuroscientific, etc.) on women, men and confidence they come to a “gloomy” conclusion.  They write: “[T]here is a particular crisis for women – 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.  This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.”


Why do I like it?


First, the article is well-written and efficiently covers a wide range of recent research showing – over and over – that there exists a female “reticence” (for lack of a better word) impacting women’s success in almost every dimension of work life.  The authors mostly share relevant data without a lot of interpretation, which makes one of their key points even more compelling: “Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence.”


I also like “The Confidence Gap” because its information resonates with me: I believe these journalists have really hit on something.  As a woman leadership coach to both men and women clients who grapple with self-doubt, I find Kay and Shipman’s report maddening, and familiar.  They delve deeply into the differences between how men and women tend to assess themselves: “In studies, men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both.  Their performances do not differ in quality.”  What is going on?  “Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in [borrowing the phrase from Sheryl Sandberg].  Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back.  Women feel confident only when they are perfect.  Or practically perfect.”  “Perfectionism,” they note elsewhere, is a “confidence killer.”


I’ll refrain from repeating all of the evidence they uncover about this dynamic, and how directly confidence affects workplace success (suffice it to say, it seems overwhelming).  But the third thing I appreciated about this article is the hopeful note it strikes at the finish.  The authors quote an Ohio State University psychologist, Richard Petty, who defines “confidence” as “the stuff that turns thoughts into action.”  So, Kay and Shipman note, the consequence of lacking confidence is inaction; this is what is happening when women themselves back.  Research in neuroscience, regarding the plasticity of our brains and therefore our capacity to change our patterns of thought, offers a path forward.  As the authors say: “Women need to stop thinking so much and just act.”


In what situations would this be useful?


When I first read “The Confidence Gap,” I immediately sent it around to a number of women and men clients who I thought might relate to the confidence issue and find the article both practical and inspiring.  Then, as I thought about it more, I sent it around a second time to family and friends – especially parents and other relatives of school-age girls and boys – hoping it would do the same for them.  Anyone who cares about the ingredients of “success” in the contemporary workplace would benefit from this article.


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


Kay and Shipman have a book out on this topic, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know (Harper Business, 2014), that I haven’t read yet.  Other candid and pragmatic resources on women, men and leadership that I would recommend include The Athena Doctrine by John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” (also first published in The Atlantic, in 2012) and Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (all of which I’ve previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library).


On the not unrelated note of men, women and “work-life balance,” I’d recommend “Manage Your Work, Manage Your Life” by Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams (Harvard Business Review, March 2014).  The article summary reads, in part: “Executives of both sexes consider the tension between work and family to be primarily a woman’s problem, and most of them believe that one can’t compete in the global marketplace while leading a ‘balanced’ life.”


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