Women and Confidence: Why They Lack Self-Faith

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Do women tend to be less confident than men? What do you think the reason is behind women’s lack of self-confidence?

According to Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, the authors of The Confidence Code, women have less confidence than men because women tend to underestimate their abilities—their self-perception is negatively skewed. Men, on the other hand, tend to overestimate their abilities. 

In this article, we’ll discuss women and confidence. Specifically, we’ll take a look at the evidence of the confidence gap between genders, and the differences in how men and women express confidence.

Evidence of Differences

In discussing women and confidence in their book The Confidence Code, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman point to the following evidence of the confidence gap between genders:

Exhibit #1: Zach Estes Experiments

Zach Estes is a psychologist who studies confidence in men and women. He ran several experiments and found that women have equal ability to men but less confidence in those abilities, and this lack of confidence results in inaction and decreased performance (and vice versa):

  • When asked to reorganize a 3-D puzzle, women scored worse than men because many of them didn’t try to answer the questions they were unsure about. (When Estes told the women they had to answer all the questions, they scored the same as the men.)
  • When everyone was asked to answer every question and also to rate how confident they were about each answer, men’s test scores increased to 93 and women’s decreased to 75.
  • When random people were told that they did well on an earlier test, they all substantially improved their scores on the next text.

Exhibit #2: Dunning and Ehrlinger Experiments

Psychologists David Dunning and Joyce Ehrlinger found that because women were less confident in general, they were less confident when doing specific tasks, and this discouraged them from trying similar tasks again:

  • When asked to rate themselves on scientific abilities, women gave themselves an average of 6.5/10, while men said 7.6/10.
  • When actually taking a scientific test, women and men scored similarly—the average for women was 7.5 and for men was 7.9.
  • When asked to sign up for a science competition after taking the test, fewer than half the women signed up while 71% of the men did. 

Exhibit #3: Interviews

The authors interviewed many people about the confidence differences between the sexes. Almost all the women they interviewed expressed self-doubt or lacked faith that they deserved their positions, especially as they climbed the ladder:

  • Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said that there are days she feels like a fraud.
  • International Monetary Fund leader Christine Lagarde and German Chancellor Angela Merkel assumed that they didn’t know enough about topics and poured over files to prepare.
  • Officer Michaela Bilotta, an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, felt like she was lucky to get her position.
  • Mystics basketballer Monique Currie said everyone on men’s teams has the same amount of confidence, whether he’s a non-starter or the star. But women who are benched or not top players lose confidence. 
  • Mystics coach Mike Thibault, who’s coached both men and women, said that women have more trouble letting their mistakes and losses go and detaching from the outside world.
  • CEO of BAE Systems, Linda Hudson, assumes others think she’s unqualified when they first meet her. She said that if you’re a woman, everyone assumes you’re incompetent until you prove you’re not. For men it’s the opposite—everyone assumes you’re competent until you make a mistake.

Piece of Evidence #4: Salary Surveys

Several researchers have found that women negotiate their salaries less often and ask for less than men do, suggesting that women undervalue themselves:

  • Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon University found that men negotiate their salaries four times as often as women do. When they do negotiate, women ask for 30% less than men do. 
  • Marilyn Davidson of Manchester Business School found that her male students both expect and think they deserve higher salaries (on average $80,000) than female students expect and think they deserve (on average $64,000). 

Exhibit #5: Reported Confidence Levels

Researchers have also found that men overestimate their abilities:

  • Social psychologist Brenda Major ran tests in which she asked men and women how they expected to perform on tasks. Their performance was the same, but men always overestimated how well they would do, and women always underestimated.
  • Columbia Business School found that on average, men think their performance is almost a third better than it actually is.

The Prevailing Image of Confidence

Today’s prevailing image of confident behavior involves showboating, being authoritative, making decisions, and displaying bravado and aggression—in short, all the ways men display confidence. Over time, we’ve been socialized to accept this as the only version, though many women find it foreign and inauthentic to adopt.

  • For example, during Vanessa’s annual review, the president of her organization told her that if she wanted to climb any higher, she’d have to make decisions. He told her that it didn’t matter if her decision were wrong; she just needed to choose something and pursue it. Vanessa was flabbergasted—it was bizarre to her that making a wrong decision didn’t matter.

In reality, there are many presentations of confidence because all confidence requires is taking action. It’s possible to take action (and demonstrate confidence) by being quiet, listening, sharing credit, acting calmly, and even showing vulnerability or uncertainty (ruminating won’t induce confidence, but reviewing decisions to learn from them can be advantageous). 

  • For example, on a panel about women’s economic promise, all of the participants but one were women. The women respected the moderator and the man talked whenever he liked. He was an outlier and in this setting, his traditional male confidence appeared rude.

In fact, some of the non-mainstream expressions of confidence might be advantageous. 

  • For example, instead of speaking a lot, women might wait for an opening in a male-dominated conversation and say one really important, authoritative thing. 

Additionally, many studies show that women who act the same way as men aren’t received well by either men or women. For example, Victoria Brescoll of the Yale School of Management tested people’s impressions of men and women in different positions. First, she asked them how much they’d talk in different positions:

  • The men said if they were junior, they’d talk less, and senior, they’d talk more.
  • The women said they’d talk the same amount regardless of rank. As seniors, the women wouldn’t want to appear controlling, out of line, or unlikable.

Next, Brescoll asked participants to rate hypothetical CEOs of different genders and talkativeness:

  • When both a female and male CEO talked the same amount—more than others—both men and women thought the woman was less competent and less effective than the man. 
  • When the female CEO talked less, everyone thought she was more competent.

There is some evidence that the workplace is changing to accept different confidence styles.

  • For example, a Stanford Business School study found that combining male qualities (aggression and so on) and female qualities (collaboration and so on) makes for the most success. After eight years, the women who used both qualities were promoted more often than any of the other combinations of genders and gender-associated traits.
Women and Confidence: Why They Lack Self-Faith

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  • An examination of the art and science of confidence
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  • How to build confidence in yourself and others

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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