Article Review: The Confidence Gap

If you haven’t read Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s piece in the Atlantic titled “The Confidence Gap,” you should.  There’s a lot of really important thoughts on gender differences in the workplace packed into a single, dense longform piece.

Confidence matters, almost as much as – or perhaps more than – competence.

I’ve been saying this for years, sometimes quoting some of the same citations, but mostly relying on my own life experiences of watching incredibly confident young men, my peers, overcome all manner of outrageous odds to succeed…despite being less talented than many of our female peers.  This article resonates deeply with me, and, I expect, will create a similar tug of feelings in many women: relief that their experience is normative, that they are not alone, while at the same time being deeply frustrating as confirmation that the world rewards the irrelevant.

I do take issue with a couple of things in the article though.  Most importantly, I specialize in getting people to “fake” confidence…it’s more complex than that, of course, but it’s much easier than Ms. Kay and Ms. Shipman seem to acknowledge.

Bottomline, we agree: women can change, and should, to some extent.  We can retrain our initial impulses, our “resting” body language, our visibility in the workplace.

But I think our authors dramatically undersell the consequences that women face for being anything less than “feminine.”  Ask Victoria Brescoll (quoted heavily in the article) about her work on female political candidates, and how the very public confidence we expect of male politicians works out for women.  (Answer: women who seem to WANT a higher office are usually despised by the voting public, whereas women who seem to be reluctantly taking on a public service get much higher approval.  Ambition isn’t very feminine.)

For a fantastic takedown of that particular aspect of Ms. Kay and Ms. Shipman’s article, read what Jessica Valenti has to say in The Guardian.

It’s not so simple to say “oh, just project confidence.”

And yet, I happen to be excellent at teaching women to project confidence in the work place, to good effect, despite the article’s claim that people can smell “fake” confidence from a mile away.  I’m sure that’s somewhat true, but that’s also a rather shallow view of acting.  Acting is, at it’s most simple, a set of choices to take one action over another.  There’s nothing fake about it – they are real choices, real actions.  A lack of commitment is what turns into that “fake” feeling…everything else is just a poor choice, all the better to inform your next move(s).

The bigger issue I have is the article’s heavy focus on women changing.  What do we do about the system that over rewards confidence?  How do we educate and disrupt a system that tends to reward men based on their potential and women based on their past accomplishments?  How do we open the eyes of the high level leaders who equate quantity of comments with quality of thought?

We have good evidence that all of this alluring confidence is not predictive of concrete success.  If women exhibit too little confidence, it’s equally obvious that some men are wildly overconfident – sometimes innocuously, sometimes to the detriment of their work.

I am always cautious about drawing the conclusion that women need to more perfectly emulate men if we are to eliminate this gender gap, or that one (there are so many).  There are good reasons that we have gotten to this point in time…penalties for defying gender expectations is one (the reason a man is strong and a woman is a b*tch), but perhaps there is also an element of realism in many women’s self assessment.  If we aim to change the world, let’s not simply set out to level the playing field in the current system…let’s re-evaluate the paradigm.

In some cases, confidence is paramount.  I will never want a surgeon who cannot project confidence.  If you are planning to have your hands and a knife inside my body cavity, I want you to be insanely self-assured.  However, if you are in a profession where the stakes are slightly more abstract, perhaps we should be working on celebrating personality aspects that are more directly correlated with good results (instead of personal success.)  There is value in questioning yourself, there is value in having a more objective view of your own skills and qualifications, particularly in a team setting.  Rather than obscuring those “feminine” tendencies, we need to work on giving them their due within the US business climate at large, even as we get individual women to realize their impact on individual careers.

If I can make a woman successful – which in this case means “installed in a position of power” or “promoted to a high level” – by teaching her how to perfectly ape a particular model of male leadership, all I’ve done is destroy the different perspective I was hoping she would bring to the table.  I’m rarely interested in a small step for a woman, unless it’s a real step forward (great leap or small stumble) for all humankind.


Leave a comment


email* (not published)