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Is there a confidence gap between men and women?

And does it contribute to the gender pay gap? Phoebe Luckhurst addresses the complicated notion of workplace confidence

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By Phoebe Luckhurst on

Confidence is alchemical. Those who possess it are captivating and authoritative – the quality is a power that can make some lives look enviably easy.

And, as mythology runs, it’s a trait that women lack, compared with men. We lack their bombast and their bluster; we lack their faith in our own capabilities, and undervalue ourselves in ways they rarely do. The pathological self-doubt is a legacy of a time when we were voiceless and impotent – but duly, while progress towards equality continues apace, it seems the confidence shortfall persists. Indeed, it is creating what broadcaster Katty Kay calls “a confidence gap”.

In a piece for the BBC, Kay, who presents the network’s Washington news bulletin, BBC World News America, argues that the confidence gap serves as a barrier to women’s progress in the workplace. “Men tend to overestimate their abilities…” she writes. “We women, on the other hand, tend to routinely underestimate our abilities. Our perception of our talent skews lower than our actual worth. This what we’ve dubbed the confidence gap.”

And it's really slowing us down. On a small, daily level, we are reticent to speak up in meetings; this crescendos, over time, into a fear of asking for promotions we are qualified for. It rhymes with the findings of that viral 2014 Hewlett Packard report, quoted in Sheryl Sandberg’s canonical Lean In, which reported that while men will apply for a job when they meet 60 per cent of the qualifications for the role, women will apply only when they meet 100 per cent of them. “Over the course of a career, the confidence gap can lead to fewer promotions, limited opportunities and less pay,” concludes Kay.  

The “confidence gap” is not a catch-all explanation for workplace inequality; there’s plenty more – including straightforward discrimination – at play. But the term spotlights the problem and invites investigation. Kay puts female self-doubt down to “a noxious stew of perfectionism, risk aversion, fear of failure, and over-thinking”. Happily, she also reasons it’s a “pattern that can easily be broken” – namely, by instilling that missing confidence in a generation of ascendant women.

Suggesting that women must become a parody of a ‘ball-breaking’ female executive does not create equality. Ultimately, confidence doesn’t look the same for everyone

Firstly, we need to reassert our own agency. “As women, we need to take responsibility for our own confidence,” says Nicola Findlay, life coach and author of forthcoming book Live Like You Give A F**K. “We need to build and stretch it like a muscle, so we must start to put ourselves in more situations where we’re challenged. Men do it all the time and we need to catch up. We need to own this like we would our physical health.”

Kay suggests that closing the confidence gap means “being honest about your abilities, not constantly undervaluing them. It means accepting that the odd failure is part of the human condition. It means letting upsets, criticisms and mistakes go and not clinging to them like a dog with a bone.” Instead of stewing, we need to take lessons and move on.

It also means throwing yourself into situations that might frighten you. “Who told you you  weren’t good enough?” Findlay continues. “You did. ​Firstly, recognise when you use this negative self-talk, press pause and switch up the conversation you have with yourself to a positive one.” She advises not comparing yourself to others, and “focusing on your own game plan”.

But, crucially, “confidence” can be a loaded term. It’s important that the notion of a “confidence gap” does not in turn prescribe a certain set of personality tropes to aspire to. While countering the “noxious stew” is important, suggesting that instead women must become a parody of a “ball-breaking” female executive or start cracking crude jokes in order to play like the lads does not create equality. Ultimately, confidence doesn’t look the same for everyone.

“When I observe the happiest and most successful women, they are always the women who are comfortable in their own skin,” writes writer and radio host Cara Alwill Leyba in her upcoming book, Like She Owns The Place. “Confidence is not about being like someone else who is confident, about emulating the outspoken woman in the conference room with the razor-sharp tongue. It’s about being your truest self.”

Revolutions require conviction – you can't change a thing if you don't believe you can.


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