The Nation's Pulse

Women’s Confidence Gap

Welcome to the post-feminist world.

By 4.24.14

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Journalists Claire Shipman (wife of Presidential Press Secretary Jay Carney, senior national correspondent for ABC’s Good Morning America, and regular contributor to This Week with George Stephanopoulos) and Katty Kay (anchor for BBC World News America) have a new book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know, that claims that women, compared to men, lack professional confidence. That is a significant finding because, according to the authors, confidence trumps competence any time. Sadly, women, they say, depend on their competence, while men get ahead because they are so overly confident.

Well, actually, Claire went deeper than that, as reported by Rush Limbaugh: women are less confident because there are basic biological differences between men and women. What? Wait, she said what? Yes… she actually said that. She explained, when talking to Megyn Kelly on The Kelly File on the Fox News Channel, that testosterone matters, that there are differences in the way men and women think: “... because testosterone really drives risk taking. We’re built differently. There are a lot of great things that women bring to the table. There’s a reason why women help the bottom line of companies when we’re there, but we need to get better at risk-taking. We need to get better at failure. And this is what we found.”

In the public relations campaign to promote the book, there is a cover story in the May issue of the Atlantic, which states, “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.” Shocking, I know. Welcome to the post-feminist world and the failure of rhetoric in the face of reality. The authors also share their own struggles with finding confidence: they’ve each questioned their intelligence and ability to compete for top jobs, and attributed success to being “in the right place at the right time.”

In an interview on the Diane Rehm Show, the two authors related that they wrote the book because, in the interviews for their first book, Womenomics, they “were struck by so many of the women we interviewed confessing to us, not really even as part of the interview, that they might feel they didn’t deserve a promotion they got. Or they wouldn’t talk about their success in ways we use ourselves: Oh, I was just lucky.” In another context, a report by Naomi Schaeffer Riley, they recounted that even Facebook COO Sheryl “Lean In” Sandberg told them, “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.”

These findings from their ethnographic study (check this example of ethnographic research), in the face of 30-plus years of the feminist movement where American culture, including schools, were reconstructed around girl’s and women’s needs — including Title IX and the Women’s Educational Equity Act — seems counterintuitive. Riley notes, “The environment we’ve created is so challenging for boys that we’ve wound up giving them too much Ritalin to keep them in line — and they are still falling behind.” She quotes Chester Finn, education expert, who laments the numerous developments that have been bad for boys and then says it would be a “splendid historical irony if the feminization of K-12 education has led to a situation that is bad for girls as well.”

Even though Shipman and Kay found that girls do extremely well in school, in the real world they often are not confident, hence they are not risk-takers. The two authors describe taking time to define “confidence” as opposed to “self-esteem” — which they see as a “general sense that you are valuable to the world.” Confidence, on the other hand, required being able to “turn thoughts into action.” Too often, women are hesitant to speak out for fear of looking foolish or appearing to be ignorant. Kay described going to the White House and being one of two women in a small group; she felt reticent to speak out, whereas the men spoke up freely and adopted the pose (whether warranted or not) of being “experts.” They cited data on “women thinking they have to have 100 percent of job qualifications before they’ll take something on, ask for a promotion, and men will do it at 60 percent.”

Shipman and Kay also cited research by a psychology professor at the University of Milan who had both men and women try to resolve a Rubik’s Cube test on a computer. The women’s scores came out worse than the men’s. The researchers found that women were not answering the questions when they were unsure. They redid the experiment requiring the men and women to answer all the questions, and the women did as well as the men.

Perhaps the most important conclusion of the “Confidence” book, however, applies to both men and women. We do not have to remain limited by our biology when it comes to our competence or our confidence. Each of us has a “concrete highway” of potential, but during the course of our lives we can make choices that build overpasses and tunnels and roads that go specific places, overcome certain limitations, and go around hurdles that stand in our way.

When we make those choices — some good and some not — they put us in situations and circumstances that we can learn from and, thus, build our competence and, depending upon whether we express the correct messages to ourselves through those thoughts, build more confidence.

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About the Author

Janice Shaw Crouse, is the author of Children at Risk and Marriage Matters.