The Confidence Gap Is Real. Here’s How We Fix It.

November 8, 2017

Women, we’re selling ourselves short.

The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman tells the story of a female friend who was supervising two 20-something junior staffers; one female and one male.

Robert was new to the job, but already pitching ideas on the business strategy. Their supervisor (the friend) would shoot down some of the ideas, correct his misconceptions, and send him off for more research. He’d shrug his shoulders and return a few days later to pitch again.

Rebecca had been at the job for several years. She made appointments to speak with the supervisor and prepared lists for discussion. She was mostly quiet in client meetings and never shared ideas that weren’t carefully drafted and analyzed.

The supervisor relied on Rebecca, but had a feeling it would ultimately be Robert who would rise to the top of the company ladder. She felt it would only take one of his many ideas to be recognized, and he’d be off running, leaving Rebecca behind, still dutifully preparing her notes for the next meeting.

If this story sounds uncomfortably familiar, it’s not surprising. As authors Kay and Shipman discovered while in the research phase of their book, there’s a serious problem with women being overlooked in the workplace due to fear of appearing overly aggressive or outspoken; something studies have shown most men aren’t concerned about.

“When a man, imagining his future career, looks in the mirror, he sees a senator staring back. A woman would never be so presumptuous,” suggests Marie Wilson, an advocate for women in politics.

And research clearly backs up Wilson’s sentiment. Compared to men, women don’t put ourselves forward for nearly as many promotions, nor enter into as many pay rise negotiations. But…why?

It’s called ‘the confidence gap’; simply put, it’s a gender-specific phenomenon whereby, as women, we tend to assume we’ll score lower on a test or perform less favorably in a performance review, and as such, regularly underestimate our own abilities. In a nutshell, we’re selling ourselves short; both metaphorically and financially.

A study conducted by Hewlett-Packard in the 1980s highlighted just how gaping this gender confidence divide is in the workplace. In an attempt to discover how to get more women into top management positions, the company conducted surveys with its staff, which showed that, unlike their male colleagues, women in the business were only applying for promotions when they felt they met 100 percent of the job qualifications. In stark contrast, most surveyed men were happy to put their hat in the ring when they felt they met just 60 percent of the job requirements.

“Essentially, women feel confident only when we are perfect. Or practically perfect,” emphasize Kay and Shipman.

“Study after study confirms that it is largely a female issue, one that extends through women’s entire lives. We don’t answer questions until we are totally sure of the answer, we don’t submit a report until we’ve edited it ad nauseam, and we don’t sign up for that triathlon unless we know we are faster and fitter than is required. We watch our male colleagues take risks, while we hold back until we’re sure we are perfectly ready and perfectly qualified. The irony is that striving to be perfect actually keeps us from getting much of anything done.”

In other words, we’re missing a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to achieving workplace equality, and it’s got nothing to do with how quickly we can submit that project, or how flawlessly we deliver that Powerpoint presentation at the next meeting.

“Confidence matters just as much as competence,” explains University of California, Berkeley psychologist, Cameron Anderson.

“We may not realize it, but we all give confidence inordinate weight and we respect people who project it,” echo Kay and Shipman.

“This explains why less competent people are so often promoted over their more able colleagues.”

As infuriating as this is, it can be our fuel to develop more confidence. As the authors found, part of what determines our confidence is science (our genetic makeup), but the other part, is art (the way we live our lives). The latter is something we can control. Ergo; the confidence gap can be closed. Here’s how…

Get out of your comfort zone


“Nothing builds confidence like action,” explain Kay and Shipman.

Taking risks and accepting failures is critical to developing your confidence, both personally and professionally.

The good news is, you can take it slowly. If your goal is to speak up more at work, but you’re scared of a rebuttal, practice with a friend before the actual meeting (these body language hacks will help you look the part while you’re at it).

Don’t overthink it

Overthinking Confidence

“A woman’s brain is not her friend when it comes to confidence. We think too much and we think about the wrong things,” postulate the authors.

As women, we’re often our own worst enemies when it comes to letting negative thoughts swirl in our heads until we feel unable to act.

To counter overthinking, go through a list of your achievements and successes. Instead of saying to yourself, “I should have got that report done quicker than I did,” change the monologue to, “My boss was really pleased with that report that I finished.”.

Speak up, but don’t upspeak


Upspeak is when you raise the tone of your voice at the end of a sentence, suggesting you’re asking a question, instead of making a firm declaration, and it’s one of the ways women often come undone when it comes to securing pay rises and promotions.

“It is a psychological safety net. When we’re unsure of ourselves we unconsciously make our comment sound like a question in order to deflect criticism,” explain Kay and Shipman. And it’s essentially like saying, “Please don’t challenge me, it was just a question”.

But here’s what you need to keep in mind. If you don’t sound confident, who’s going to believe what you say?

Do it daily

Every day Confidence

Too often we want a conference or a women’s retreat to hold the solution to our problems; a quick fix. But it’s usually the small everyday actions we take that will make the ultimate difference.

The most crirtical, though seemingly smallest steps to building your confidence so you can demand that pay rise at your next performance review are tasks which are centred around self-care. The more you prioritize yourself, through meditation, quality sleep, exercise and gratitude, the stronger your self-esteem muscle will become, and the smaller your anxiety muscle will be.

Don’t fake it till you make it


More often than not, the way men display their confidence is not something we’d be comfortable replicating (mansplaining and manspreading? No thanks).

“Most women aren’t comfortable dominating conversations, throwing their weight around in a conference room, interrupting others, or touting their achievements,” suggest Kay and Shipman.

“Confidence isn’t about pretending, or putting on an act; it springs from genuine accomplishment and work.”

So if any of this pop psychology is at all helpful, use it as a motivation to begin, and go get ’em. Because chances are you’ve already got the skills and experience you need to get ahead; you just have to back yourself.

Images via tumblr.com and giphy.com.

Comment: Have you held back from requesting a pay rise or promotion before due to lacking confidence in yourself?

Want More?

Have our best reads delivered straight to your inbox every week by subscribing to our newsletter.



You Said