By Susan Gross Sholinsky
Imagine yourself in the following scenario. You’ve just learned that one of your colleagues has been promoted, and now that job—high profile internally and externally—is vacant. Getting it would be a professional coup, not to mention a significant bump in compensation. When the position is posted, you review the requirements and realize that you have 90% of the skills and qualifications being sought. Your slightly junior male colleague reviews the job posting and believes that he meets about 50% of the requirements. Who applies for the job, and who gets it?
You may have guessed. . . . If you’re like most women (read on!), you think to yourself, “Oh, well, maybe next time I’ll be fully qualified for the job.” You pass on applying, and resolve to commit yourself to 100 percent professional perfection. Your less qualified but eager junior male colleague applies for the job—and gets it!
This scenario plays out over and over again not just in corporate America but globally. A professor at a business school in England asks her class every year how much they expect to earn five years after graduation. Having repeated this exercise with different students over the course of about seven years, the professor reports “massive” differences between the responses from male and female students, with the women thinking that they deserve about 20% less than the men believe that they deserve. Yes, women have made great strides over the past few decades. But the gap in pay and the number of women in top roles is still not where it should be. Why is this? Well, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman (and the author of this blog post) believe it is due, in significant part, to what Kay and Shipman call the “Confidence Gap.”
In a thought provoking article published in The Atlantic, which summarizes the subject of their forthcoming book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, Kay and Shipman provide evidence that, although women have similar abilities as their male colleagues, they unfortunately assume that they don’t. And that assumption has vast repercussions and frequently makes women less successful. Even when they do become successful, women often don’t feel as if they deserve to be where they are. Many fear that someday, someone will “find them out,” and expose them for the fraud they’ve perpetrated.
Kay and Shipman note that confidence is often as important, or even more important, than competence. They cite studies where colleagues with more confidence are better liked than their colleagues who may be more competent.
The confidence shortfall, according to the authors, comes from varied sources, including biology, upbringing, and socialization. In terms of biology, part of the differences between a man’s confidence and a woman’s may stem from the difference in testosterone levels, as well as some differences in the brain chemistry between men and women.
With respect to upbringing and socialization, boys and girls generally have different classroom experiences that ultimately impact on their confidence. According to studies cited by Kay and Shipman, girls are praised for being “good.” And praise is welcomed, so girls are encouraged to be better—they listen well, they behave well, play by the rules, etc. Boys are often chastised for being “bad.” Further, boys roughhouse with one another, tease each other, and point out one another’s limitations. Such repeated negative evaluations eventually “lose their power,” and the boys become more resilient and let others’ tough remarks slide off their backs. This lack of sensitivity to rejection and failing encourages boys to take more risks in the future—something girls (and eventually women) aren’t as willing to do.
Further, females “internalize” more. In one study, as a college class got more difficult during the semester and the students’ test scores began to decrease, the male students tended to “externalize” the situation: “Wow, this is a hard class!” On the other hand, the female students began to doubt themselves: “I knew I shouldn’t have taken this class; I’m not strong in this subject.”
In another study, a disparity in spatial relations test scores between male and female subjects was so significant the researcher examined the results more closely. Apparently, many of the women had done poorly because they simply hadn’t attempted to answer many of the questions. The next time test was administered, the researcher told the subjects that they were required to at least try to answer all of the questions. The women’s scores increased sharply, matching the men’s.
The results of this experiment are significant. On the one hand, they’re very frustrating—women simply tend not to believe they can do it, so they don’t even try. On the other hand, though, it is very hopeful. It means that if women just tried, and didn’t assume that they wouldn’t win if they did, there would be a lot more women winners out there. Just like the theme of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, you have to be in it to win it!
What this article says to me is that, in order to narrow the confidence gap, women don’t need to change the essence of their personalities, or to “fake” self-confidence. And this is good, since, according to the article, studies show that others can tell when someone is faking their confidence level—and they don’t like the fakers. But women still need to be conscious of the confidence gap and understand that their actions (or more likely, inaction) may be negatively affecting their career advancement. As such, we need to change our perception of ourselves—that is, give ourselves a little more credit—and as a result, take more risks, and believe that we just might win the game (get the promotion, win the award, etc.). But to win the game, we need to play!
Narrowing the confidence gap alone is not the end of the conversation about women ascending to the C-suite. It is human nature to want to promote and work with people who are like us. As Sheryl Sandberg notes in Lean In, when men are in charge, there’s a better chance they’ll champion other men. As such, women will have a better chance to rise to the top once more organizations have women who are already in leadership roles.
But for now, in order to speed the process along, it can’t hurt for women to heed the message of the Confidence Gap, and to take more chances based on the fact that, notwithstanding what we may be inclined to believe, we need not wait until we’re 100% sure we’re ready and qualified to take that next step. Instead of asking “why would they want me,” the question should be “who wouldn’t want me in that job!?” Let’s not take ourselves out of the game before we give ourselves a shot to win.
What do you think? Do you agree with the premise of Kay and Shipman’s article? We’d like to hear your thoughts.