The Confidence Gap: Do Women Lack Confidence, or Does the World Lack Confidence in Women?

Studies show that companies that hire women outperform their competitors. So why is it still so hard for them to advance?

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Women lack confidence —  so says a piece in The Atlantic called “The Confidence Gap,” written by two women with impressive careers at ABC World News and BBC America. Confidence, they say, is just as important as competence in getting ahead, and many women suffer from self-doubt. But the confidence gap between men and women doesn’t necessarily reflect the lack of confidence women have for themselves. Perhaps it’s about a lack of confidence the world places in women.

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman cite that while writing their book Womenomics, they found that women expressed some level of self-deprecation about why they weren’t advancing in their careers. Some suggested they weren’t smart enough, others that they simply weren’t the best fit. Shipman herself cited “luck” as a factor in her own advancement, despite an impressive resume.

But given the gender inequality in the workplace — right down to the glaring disparity in pay between men and women — how is it any wonder that there is a confidence gap at all? When there are more men than women at executive-level tables, when men are promoted faster and more often at better rates of pay, whose lack of confidence does that reveal? Women’s? Or the society’s?

“In the United States, women now earn more college and graduate degrees than men do. We make up half the workforce, and we are closing the gap in middle management,” Kay and Shipman write. “Half a dozen global studies, conducted by the likes of Goldman Sachs and Columbia University, have found that companies employing women in large numbers outperform their competitors on every measure of profitability.”

They say this is a show of competence. But it’s also a testimony to the levels of confidence women possess in their ability to make goals attainable, particularly as women become the face of higher education.

The unevenness with which women are promoted and advanced in the workforce shows that society still lacks confidence in women. The same society that is very much preoccupied about whether having a baby will change a woman’s dedication to her job, or that the emotional pull of having a family at home will change her priorities — these are not questions we ask of men; they are not thoughts that impact hiring decisions as it does when women are considered for the same position.

That any woman could or would attribute her own success, in part, to a stroke of luck in light of all of these factors is not unusual, nor does it diminish her qualifications or competence to acknowledge it as such.

When a structural force like gender bias and sexism dictate the rules of the workplace, it inherently undermines confidence that society places in women, and therefore makes it easy for women to feel a little less certain. It manifests itself accordingly. It’s not that men are more confident or competent, really, it’s that they are praised, lauded, and nurtured more on the basis of their gender. It’s why studies show that men are generally a bit overconfident in their abilities. The gender gap works as a safety net for men, and a rope for women. But the more we get away from the idea that sexual discrimination continues to exist, the more we’ll perpetuate the idea that women are the weaker sex — in spite of all the heavy lifting they continue to do, and evidence to the contrary.

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