Nearly everyone has witnessed the “confidence gap” between working men and women, if not experienced it first hand. The secretary who could run the place if she’d just asked for promotions. The nincompoop, who not only steals your ideas, he loudly promotes them to the boss in front of you. No need to beat this already dead horse to death, but I thought I’d take a closer look at the phenome after reading podcaster, Elisa Kreisinger’s essay on Refinery29.
Kreisinger dutifully reports the newest research devoted to figuring out why we still lack females in power positions. She rightly points out that nearly every study shows that too many competent women lack the fire of confidence, which would propel their trajectory to the C-suite. Why? Kreisinger doesn’t answer that, nor, and even more importantly, suggest anything women can do about it.
She ends her piece: If anyone should have a glass ceiling it’s under-qualified and underprepared men. Let’s make it harder for them to succeed. Not us.
She lost me with that last bit. Why bother hurling the penis-bearing mammals into the nearest elevator shaft? Why not figure out what’s “wrong” with women’s confidence level and find a way to fix it. I found, at least some of the answers, diving a little more deeply into the research.
In the mid-nineties, Cornell University Professors Dunning and Kruger found that “unwarranted over-confidence is created by an individual’s inability to adequately assess their own level of (in)competence.” Because they know so little about the work, they are blind to their own ignorance. Widely known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, it’s someone who is too stupid to know how stupid they are. We’ve all met that person (I say ‘person’ because I don’t think this is only a male trait). It gets worse. Incompetent is one thing but because they know so little, they also assume they are smarter than everyone else.
Dumb is one thing, but dumb and smug is nearly unbearable.
I don’t want to belabor Dunning-Kruger’s insightful explanation of blow-hard ignoramuses, but rather look at their observations of workers who are competent. It’s there that we begin to see the problem for many women. According to Dunning-Kruger, skilled people also incorrectly estimate their proficiencies, especially when compared to others. Essentially some capable people think because they can do something well, everyone can. They underestimate their qualifications because they have no idea that others can’t do what they do, and, therefore, undervalue it.
Most importantly the professors suggest that before pointing a finger at others, on either end of that spectrum, we all take a critical look at ourselves. Self-examination is what brought reporters, Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, to the female confidence conundrum in “The Confidence Code.” Both accomplished women, they wanted to know what happens to competent, even high-achieving, women’s faith in themselves. They start with Dunning and Kruger but go further to include the nature vs. nurture debate, neuroscience, and genetic testing.
It’s unfair to summarize “The Confidence Code,” but a couple of important ideas can be laid out fairly quickly. The authors quote an “Internet genius and startup wizard” who told them that women need to learn to “fail fast.” A buzz phrase from the tech world, he explained that he meant that women should be more willing to try, and, if they fail, try again.
The unwillingness to fail and try again became evident to Aline Lerner, co-founder of interviewing.io, an anonymous interviewing platform for engineers looking for work in the tech world. “Potential employees can take any number of interview practice tests,” says Lerner, an engineer. “Top performers can then unlock the jobs portal, where they can book real, anonymous interviews with companies.”
Lerner took a look at the data as it concerns gender and found a shocking number of women stop coming back to the site when they do badly on one interview sample. Seven times as many women as men never book another practice interview. Lerner says that people who haven’t been immersed in the culture of technical interviewing are at a disadvantage, many of whom are women.
“We believe that technical interviewing is a broken process for everyone but that the flaws within the system hit underrepresented groups the hardest because they haven’t had the chance to internalize just how much of technical interviewing is a numbers game.”
A lot of unwillingness to try starts in childhood. Women, write Shipman and Kay, can be timid perfectionists. Females are trained from childhood to be good girls, to put their heads down and do the work. Those instructions on good manners and patience, don’t apply to the working world. They cite numerous studies showing that women ask for promotions less often than men, because they consistently underrate their abilities. They won’t present an idea or project until it’s “perfect” and end up doing nothing but fussing around with details. They fail to take action. Confidence, which is as important as competence, is all about action. It requires repeated attempts, so you’re not swamped by failure and continue taking calculated risks.
Jason Shen, co-founder of tech hiring platform, Headlight and a resident at TED focused on better ways to assess talent, points out that as opposed to the instructions about how to be a nice, little girl — don’t speak up or interrupt — there are many powerful cultural cues that encourage men to take risks.
“Look at the movies. How often do you see an individual guy, or a band of guys who don’t know what they’re doing, succeed despite the odds? We’re being told that men are allowed to be daring and succeed when they are.”
Shipman and Kay quote Richard Petty, an Ohio State University psychology professor who studies confidence. “Confidence is the stuff that turns thoughts into action…It turns thoughts into judgments about what we are capable of and then transforms those judgments into action.” The authors add that Petty’s comments about action were repeated over and over as they interviewed: “Nothing builds confidence like taking action, especially if it involves risk and failure…Confidence accumulates.”
Every time you get up and go at it again, you’re building those risk-taking muscles. Neuroscience has shown that repeating an action (risk, fail, try again) changes the structure of the brain, enabling the individual to become more confident as they not only learn to tolerate failure but can eventually succeed. “The Confidence Code” offers both personal stories and advice on how to build your confidence. They suggest practicing by taking small risks at first. Speak up at a meeting, even though you don’t think what you say will be perfect. Suggest a new idea. But do not fake it until you make it. They call that old saw a terrible piece of advice. Come from a real place. Don’t yell the loudest so no one will challenge you. Create and show confidence in your own style. You may have doubts but you can overcome them with practice.