Saturday 20 January 2018

Confidence gap: He thinks he can. She thinks she can't

A new book about the gender divide is the latest hot topic. Caitriona Palmer reports

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Taoiseach Enda Kenny
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Taoiseach Enda Kenny

For the majority of my adult life, like the good girl I was raised to be, I have shrugged off any professional success that has crossed my path as the lucky happenstance of fate and good fortune.

Take the Fulbright Scholarship that I won when I was 23 to pursue a graduate degree in the United States — surely a product of being in the right place at the right time. Years later I told friends that it was an “amazing stroke of luck” when the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague head-hunted me to work on the first genocide trial in Europe since the Second World War. Most recently, a book deal by a major publishing house seemed, in my opinion, a serendipitous dose of good fortune. Nothing at all to do with a well thought out book proposal.

When I look around, the men in my world seemed imbued with a healthy sense of self-confidence and aggrandisement, owing their successes with ease. So what’s the problem with my mumbling and apologising and prevaricating when my accomplishments are pointed out? And why is it that so many other successful women that I know tend to underestimate their abilities, seemingly lacking the self-assurance that drives many of their male colleagues?  

The answer, according to Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, two of America’s most prominent television journalists is simple: women today suffer from an acute lack of confidence.

In 2008, while researching for their New York Times bestseller, Womenomics — a book that explored the value of women in the workplace — Kay and Shipman were surprised when most of the accomplished and credentialed women that they interviewed for the book expressed an inexplicable feeling that they didn’t fully deserve their position at the top.

Even Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, told both Kay and Shipman that “there are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.”  Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund and one of the most powerful women in the world, confessed to Kay and Shipman that she fills her confidence gap by zealously overpreparing for everything. (As does her pal, Angela Merkel, she admitted.)

“We assume, somehow,” Lagarde told Kay and Shipman over dinner, “that [women] don’t have the level of expertise to be able to grasp the whole thing.”

Intrigued, Kay and Shipman set about exploring this unseen force keeping women back, resulting in a new book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know, proving that, at work and in life, confidence matters just as much as competence.

Through careful research, Kay and Shipman discovered that there was a vast confidence gap separating the sexes with studies showing how women generally underestimate their abilities, consider themselves not as ready for promotions, or predict that they’ll do worse on tests than men.

For Katty Kay, the issue of self-assurance in the workplace is a personal one. As the Washington Correspondent for BBC World News America, the 49-year-old mother-of-four is one of the most recognisable faces on American television. Whip smart, fluent in several languages, and equipped with a laser-like journalistic delivery that can bring America’s top politicians to their knees, Kay has spent most of her life convinced that she is not intelligent enough to merit her lofty position atop the ranks of American media.

Worse than that, Kay has long nurtured the suspicion that her English accent may have somehow helped her get to where she is today.

“I have definitely spent far too long saying that I was just in the right place at the right time or that I was just lucky that I had got to where I’d got to,” Kay says.  “I remember being told about some IQ study that showed that if you have a British accent you can earn 10 extra IQ points just by opening your mouth. So of course I believed it.”

“I think I needed, as so many women do, to find some reason for having succeeded that was not to do with my own abilities,” she says. “There had to be something else. There had to be an element of chance about it or outside factors.”

At the heart of the issue, Kay and Shipman believe, is the female predilection and pursuit towards perfectionism — a disease that keeps us from raising our hands to ask a question, pursuing that promotion or signing up for that triathlon.

A few years ago, the computer giant Hewlett-Packard found that their female employees applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100pc of the job requirements. The men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60pc.

“Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in,” write Kay and Shipman. “Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect. Or practically perfect.”

Beating ourselves up and assuming the blame when things go wrong — something that I am particularly excellent at — is another confidence killer that is keeping women back, argue Kay and Shipman.

“We have a tendency as women to take criticism very personally, to spend far too long inside our own heads,” Kay says, “Women are much more prone to ruminating than men are.”

Take Kay’s recent experience guest hosting Morning Joe — one of the most popular morning television shows in the US: “I asked a question that wasn’t particularly smart of the Governor of Iowa. That was at 6:20 in the morning. At 6:20 that evening I was still thinking about that question,” Kay says.

“I hosted three hours of television and had a really good show. No-one else had noticed that the question wasn’t very bright. Three weeks later I was still thinking about it.”

To stop herself from ruminating, Kay applied what she called the three-to-one rule — literally forcing herself to list three good things that she had done that day as opposed to asking the “dumb question”.

“You have to start training your brain to stop doing these things because men are not doing it,” she says.

“Men are literally not sitting there inside their heads to the degree that women are.”

So how to erase the confidence gap and adopt confidence-boosting habits that can help our self-esteem and self-assurance?

First off, teach our girls not to toe the line. Raising daughters of their own, Kay and Shipman are keenly aware of the cultural forces and mixed messages shaping young girls today. Ironically we tell our daughters that they can be anything they want to be but we still expect them to be “good” and compliant to raise their hands politely instead of calling out like their male peers.

“In life you need to rock the boat and have the confidence to rock the boat, whether it is asking for a pay raise or asking people to vote for you in an election or telling your boss you disagree with them,” Kay says, “and we are not giving our girls those skills as we are to young boys.”

Secondly, we need to kill the NATs — negative automatic thoughts — circulating like gnats in our female-addled brains and stop beating ourselves up. (For me that’s “I’ll never write this book. I wish I could speak up more at meetings.”)

But most importantly, says Kay, in order to build confidence we need to take risks and stop being perfectionists.

“Confidence comes from trying hard things and taking on challenges and not giving up,” she says.

“Think to yourself, ‘what is the worst thing that can happen if I fail?’ Imagine that scenario. Once you imagine that it’s not so scary,” Kay says.

“Nine times out of ten you’ll still be standing.”

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