Mind the Confidence Gap

anxious-woman-at-work
I was really trying to avoid using a stock photo to represent the female confidence gap, but alas, here we are. (Image retrieved from sheknows.com.)

My blog posts, as much as they are intended to inform and/or persuade, are designed for me as a way of learning about and working my way through considerations of a specific topic. Especially when issues are of national or international significance and I lack the anecdotal experience to make a truly informed assessment of the situation, I find my research helps me explore multiple points of view and sort through the problem, so to speak. This entry in United States of Joe is no different, if for no other reason than there is no way I can truly empathize with those disaffected by the social phenomenon in question, but anyway, here goes nothing.

Recently, I had a chat with a team member from the Ellevate Network, an organization devoted broadly to the idea of investing in women, which aims to help women succeed by facilitating their ability to make connections on a professional level, sharing their experiences and learning from those of others as part of a commitment to life-long learning, and materially investing in companies that invest in and empower women. The topic of the confidence gap came up amid a discussion of leadership and organizational politics, and the research she was able to cite off the cuff was astounding to me. Lest I try to engage in some ham-handed explanation and in an attempt to avoid “man-splaining” as much as possible, let’s have people closer and better qualified than I to map out what that is, for those who don’t know. In a piece that appeared in The Atlantic in 2014, Claire Shipman, reporter for ABC News, and Katty Kay, BBC World News America correspondent, explored the existence of the confidence gap between women and men in the workplace and how we, as a society, can work to overcome it. First, let’s look at the gap itself. From Shipman’s and Kay’s essay:

There 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. A growing body of evidence shows just how devastating this lack of confidence can be. Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels.

This confidence gap, as has been observed in countless scientific studies and as Shipman and Kay have found in their own independent research, relates to the self-reported psychological states of women, but has discernable, tangible real-world effects. Women are much less likely than their male counterparts to ask for raises and promotions, and are less likely to seek out new job opportunities and opportunities for advancement (they are more reluctant to apply when they fail to meet one or more listed “job requirements”). Of course, this is not to say that all men are overconfident; as with any group, there are those members of the population that would buck the trend and prove outliers, but even then, they tend not to be self-doubting to the extent women are. What’s more, it is not as if this phenomenon goes completely unnoticed by male colleagues. As captured in the piece, Shipman and Kay talked to numerous male managers who expressed their frustration at what they perceived to be the confidence gap at work in their own organizations, “but they had shied away from saying anything, because they were terrified of sounding sexist.” In other words, the confidence gap may not be talked about as much as it should, but it seems to be well understood by women and men alike.

Eventually, though, the cream rises to the top, right? That is, the higher sense of confidence experienced by men relative to comparable women falls apart when people begin to realize that their bravado is merely that, that their professed know-how is essentially a bluff? Yes, but only if it’s a legitimate bluff, if that makes any sense. Most male employees or prospective job-seekers aren’t merely putting on an act—they authentically believe in themselves and their abilities. Ernesto Reuben, a professor at Columbia Business School cited within Claire Shipman’s and Katty Kay’s piece, even has a term for it: honest overconfidence. Taking this one step further, psychologist Cameron Anderson, also quoted in the article and someone who has made a career out of studying the role confidence plays in decision-making, relates the findings that confidence more or less matters just as much as competence as a predictor for an individual’s success within an organization. Or as Anderson puts it, “Whether they are good or not is kind of irrelevant.” As Shipman and Kay explicitly acknowledge, this flies in the face of the put-your-head-down-and-work mentality. As far as assessments of talent go, perception very much shapes reality, fair or not.

So, from where does this disparity of confidence and expectations between sexes derive? Shipman and Kay, with research in tow, look at a number of potential variables which could mediate this divide. In terms of nature, women do exhibit a greater predisposition, when encountering obstacles, to internalize these difficulties rather than attributing them more healthily to the nature of the task. They also are more apt to err on the side of perfectionism, which can be a stifling force in terms of getting things done. Also, there is the matter of the brain and of hormones to consider, which can make a difference, although our authors are keen to note that there are more similarities regarding men’s and women’s gray matter than differences. As for nurture, Shipman and Kay point to the formative years of girls’ development as often profound influences on developing skills which breed success in the classroom, but not necessarily in the real world. From the article:

It’s easier for young girls than for young boys to behave: As is well established, they start elementary school with a developmental edge in some key areas. They have longer attention spans, more-advanced verbal and fine-motor skills, and greater social adeptness. They generally don’t charge through the halls like wild animals, or get into fights during recess. Soon they learn that they are most valuable, and most in favor, when they do things the right way: neatly and quietly. […] And yet the result is that many girls learn to avoid taking risks and making mistakes. This is to their detriment: many psychologists now believe that risk taking, failure, and perseverance are essential to confidence-building. Boys, meanwhile, tend to absorb more scolding and punishment, and in the process, they learn to take failure in stride.

As Carol Dweck, Stanford psychology professor and author, notes, as quoted in the piece, boys’ mistakes are more likely to be attributed to their failure to concentrate or try, while girls’ mistakes are more likely to be framed as an inherent part of who they are. Furthermore, not only do boys learn valuable lessons on the playground about resiliency, but since they are more likely to play sports (and less likely to quit the team), they stand to benefit more from the positive aspects of athletics, particularly the building of self-confidence. One more time from Shipman and Kay:

What a vicious circle: girls lose confidence, so they quit competing, thereby depriving themselves of one of the best ways to regain it. They leave school crammed full of interesting historical facts and elegant Spanish subjunctives, proud of their ability to study hard and get the best grades, and determined to please. But somewhere between the classroom and the cubicle, the rules change, and they don’t realize it. They slam into a work world that doesn’t reward them for perfect spelling and exquisite manners. The requirements for adult success are different, and their confidence takes a beating.


OK, so it is clear that there isn’t a real problem in diagnosing the confidence gap as a problem for women across various settings, as even male colleagues, dragging their knuckles along the ground as they go, recognize that females’ lack of confidence may hold them back. Then again, some women may choose to believe that the confidence gap is an excuse that other weaker-willed women have created to excuse their inability to succeed. These kinds of women may also be of the sort to not to believe, for instance, that gender pay inequality is, you know, a thing. Of course, a possible rebuttal to this is the notion that just because you haven’t experienced something yourself doesn’t mean it’s not real. I haven’t personally seen a million dollars up close, but I don’t doubt that such a sum can exist. Though I wouldn’t mind seeing, touching, and even spending some of that cash just to prove it. Just keeping it 100 here—I could think of a number of ways to spend or donate that kind of moolah.

Enough about money, though. Back to the issue at hand. We know that women suffer from a relative dearth of confidence relative to their male peers, despite possessing equal or superior ability. How do they—we—all of us overcome this? Not necessarily to be critical, Claire Shipman and Katty Kay offer little beyond aphorisms about the ability of the mind to change and improve and the will of the individual to succeed. Here are their closing remarks, which make reference to cited research of psychologist Zachary Estes, another mind at work on the confidence gap between men and women:

These results could not be more relevant to understanding the confidence gap, and figuring out how to close it. What doomed the women in Estes’s lab was not their actual ability to do well on the tests. They were as able as the men were. What held them back was the choice they made not to try.

The advice implicit in such findings is hardly unfamiliar: to become more confident, women need to stop thinking so much and just act. And yet, there is something very powerful about this prescription, aligning as it does with everything research tells us about the sources of female reticence.

Almost daily, new evidence emerges of just how much our brains can change over the course of our lives, in response to shifting thought patterns and behavior. If we keep at it, if we channel our talent for hard work, we can make our brains more confidence-prone. What the neuroscientists call plasticity, we call hope.

True, Shipman’s and Kay’s optimism is grounded in findings that make our knowledge about the confidence gap more complete. On the other hand, these just-do-it, don’t-give-up, believe-in-yourself platitudes may ring hollow to some—including other women. This is where someone like Jessica Valenti, blogger and feminist writer, comes in. In 2014, Valenti wrote her own piece on the confidence gap as a direct response to the writings of Shipman and Kay, particularly their book on the same subject, The Confidence Code. And let’s just say she’s not a huge fan of their work. Valenti takes issue with the pair’s reluctance to look outward and instead focus on women’s confidence, insecurity and self-esteem. In her own words:

It’s true that there’s a gendered disparity in confidence – American men overestimate their abilities and skills while women underestimate them. In fact, we’ve known this for some time: “imposter syndrome” – a phenomenon in which high-achieving women believe “they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise” – was first written about in 1978. But the “confidence gap” is not a personal defect as much as it is a reflection of a culture that gives women no reason to feel self-assured.

In girlhood, starkly-divided toy aisles teach us that engineering, electronics and science toys are for boys, that the futures for which we should be preparing are those of the Barbie Dream House variety. Adolescent girls – especially girls of color – are given less teacher attention in the classroom than their male peers. A full 56% of female students report being sexually harassed. Sexual assault on college campuses is rampant and goes largely unpunished, women can barely walk down the street without fear of harassment, and we make up the majority of American adults in poverty.

The truth is, if you’re not insecure, you’re not paying attention. Women’s lack of confidence could actually just be a keen understanding of just how little American society values them.

In “guffawing” at Shipman’s and Kay’s suppositions, Jessica Valenti does recognize that confidence and high self-esteem are useful traits, and so the recommendation is not without merit. At the same time, however, in a society in which women’s very assertiveness is turned against her—a certain “B” word comes to mind as used in the pejorative sense, and I don’t think I have to spell it out for you—self-help measures can only take women so far in the face of institutionalized sexism and discrimination. What educational and professional settings alike truly need, in Valenti’s eyes, are a culture change, one that creates a “culture that values self-assured women.” This essentially means confronting men’s roles in perpetuating the present culture which works to subjugate women. As she puts it, “You can’t self-help away deeply-ingrained structural discrimination,” and after recognition of sexism in practice led to a new wave of feminism in the 1970s, she—and we—are left to wonder if we’re not regressing on the path to gender equality.


Frequently, this blog considers the role that politics plays in our lives. Especially with her book freshly released, this seems to be as good a time as any to talk about Hillary Clinton, the first female presidential nominee for a major political party in United States history and someone who was on the cusp of being the first female U.S. president. Obviously, we did not get a second President Clinton. Instead, we got someone in Donald Trump who is far less qualified to be the leader of the country, and someone who has inspired fear and rage from people on both sides of the political aisle as well as the aisle itself, and not just merely Republicans, independents, and so-called “Bernie-crats.”

So, might some of the same concepts we’ve been discussing apply to why Clinton lost despite Trump being one of the most unpopular presidential candidates of all time? First of all, on the subject of confidence, Hillary, ahem, certainly didn’t lack for that. In fact, some might see overconfidence as a fatal flaw of the Clinton campaign. Other suggested factors, if not blatantly wrong, tend to be overstated. My personal beliefs aside, ideas like “millennials cost Clinton the election” and “Bernie’s involvement in the election hurt Hillary and the Democratic Party” ring hollow and come across as scapegoating more than the candidate herself taking responsibility for her shortcomings. Similarly, the notion that sexism alone accounted for why American voters would choose Trump over Clinton appears similarly overstated. For whatever reason(s), Hillary Clinton did not evoke a great sense of trustworthiness within the voting populace. In this respect, she likely suffered as a life-long politician relative to a neophyte such as Donald Trump. If 2016 wasn’t the year of the political outsider, I don’t know what was.

And yet, it would seem foolish to outright dismiss discrimination as a factor in how the election played out. Whether in the context of the home, the workplace, or for the country, some men—as well as some other women, too—don’t feel comfortable with a woman in a leadership role or somehow “invading” their territory. While we’re on the subject of historic firsts, Beth Mowins recently became the first woman to do the play-by-play announcing for a nationally-televised Monday Night Football game. For my money, she was great, and did a terrific job in spite of Rex Ryan’s and Sergio Dipp’s miscues. Any number of reviews of Mowins’ performance found the same to be true.

Her most vocal critics on social media, meanwhile, assailed ESPN for putting Mowins on in that role, and the way in she was criticized would seem to betray sexist leanings for the bulk of them. Much of the scorn thrown at Beth Mowins derived from the suggestion that her voice is grating; there were more colorful descriptions to be had, as you can imagine, but I’ll leave them up to you to peruse or imagine on your own. Others were less nuanced in their rationale, simply stating something to the effect of her being a “terrible” announcer. These assessments are potentially problematic in a number of ways. One may not like Mowins as an announcer for whatever reason, but to denigrate her ability to do her job is another thing completely. Mowins has put in the work over the years, and as stated, was largely applauded for her capability and her efforts this past Monday. Let’s not pretend also as if a lot of the talk about her voice isn’t coded language of a sort. Throughout the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton’s “shrill” voice and supposed health problems were frequent topics of conversation, but they say nothing of her ability to lead. As with criticisms of Beth Mowins and her voice, these speak to a sexist, chauvinistic attitude about women in power/leadership positions—and no, just because you have a wife and/or daughters doesn’t make it OK. While you’re at it, drop the line about ESPN “forcing” diversity on its viewers. I wasn’t there, but I’m pretty sure African men and women didn’t enjoy being forced into slavery. That’s not discrimination on ESPN’s part—that’s just you and the loss of your male and/or white privilege talking.

Bringing the conversation back to the topic of the confidence gap, it’s important that we do talk about women being reticent to express informed opinions in educational and professional opinions or to even believe in themselves. But I agree with Jessica Valenti that women deserve more than self-help advice and platitudes on how to deal with this phenomenon. Irrespective of setting or industry, we collectively—women and men alike—need to encourage a culture that respects and values self-assured women. We’re better for it as a society when we do, simply put, and where systemic oppression and policy designed to proscribe a woman’s ability to choose exist, we must address them. In other words, we need to mind the female confidence gap—or else risk falling behind because of it.

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