Dallas Wilt wrote a guest post a few months back on Presence, by Amy Cuddy, and it struck a nerve with Bacon readers. Today’s post by Mary Raymond continues that conversation: What is confidence, and why is it so hard for women to believe in themselves the way men often do? Raymond’s starting point is a book that changed her life, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know, by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman.
Katty Kay and Claire Shipman have covered American news and politics for over two decades, along the way interviewing some of the most accomplished women in the world. They trained their journalistic lens on professional women in their 2008 book Womenomics, and a surprising theme emerged from their research. Many of these talented women, leaders in their fields, “seemed to lack a certain boldness, a firm faith in their abilities. And for some women… the very subject is uncomfortable, because it might reveal what they believe to be an embarrassing weakness.”
Curiosity sparked, Kay and Shipman compared notes and realized that they, too, experienced this nagging self-doubt. Kay is an anchor for BBC World News America, speaks several languages, and yet remains convinced that most of her success can be attributed to luck and the American affinity for British accents. Shipman has covered politics, international affairs, and women’s issues in posts at CNN and ABC. Yet she often doubts if she deserves as much air time as her louder, more outwardly confident male colleagues. The Confidence Code is the result of their effort to define confidence, understand its impact on professional success, and offer women guidance on how to develop their own sense of self-assurance.
I first read The Confidence Code a couple of years ago at age 39. I grew up a tomboy, blindly determined to keep up with my older brother and his friends. I took it for granted that no doors would be closed to me because of my gender. I was naïve enough to believe that all those issues had been solved by the women who came before me. And yet when I read this book I had the sense that, on the cusp of turning 40, someone had finally explained to me how the world really works.
Kay and Shipman learned that for many women, “part of the problem is that we can’t make sense of the rules. Women have long believed that if we just work harder and don’t cause any bother, our natural talents will shine through and be rewarded. But then we watched as the men around us get promoted over us and paid more, too… [The men] project a level of comfort with themselves that gets them noticed and rewarded. That comfort, that self-assurance – it’s confidence.”
It turns out, “success correlates more closely with confidence than it does with competence… [and] there is evidence that confidence is more important than ability when It comes to getting ahead.” For too long, women have overlooked this critical component of achieving professional success. What worked for us in school – quietly doing our work, patiently waiting our turn to speak, carefully following rules we understood – hinders our performance in a professional arena which favors boldness over perfection.
Perfectionism is particularly pernicious for women. It “keeps us from action. We don’t answer questions until we are totally sure of the answer, we don’t submit a report until we’ve edited it ad nauseam, and we don’t sign up for that triathlon unless we know we are faster and fitter than is required. We watch our male colleagues lean in, while we hold back until we believe we’re perfectly ready and perfectly qualified.”
It is controversial to make sweeping generalizations about an entire gender. I have certainly encountered men who lack a strong sense of self-worth and women who brim with confidence. Yet none of that mattered to me when I devoured this book as though it were the single map that could guide me through a confusing workplace with no logical through line on who advanced – and who was held back. The inner struggles the authors described mirrored my own, and I began to feel a flickering of hope that if the capable women interviewed in this book felt these same doubts, perhaps the insecurities I experienced were normal. I had believed that my inner critic was clear evidence that I should not strive until I felt sure of myself, that until I reached perfection I was a fraud in a business suit. But if Kirsten Gillibrand, Valerie Jarrett, Angela Merkel, and Christine LaGarde all experienced those same self-doubts and still found their way through, maybe I could, too.
Kay and Shipman define confidence as the “stuff that turns thoughts into action.” This surprisingly simple definition presents particular challenges for women. The authors spent time talking with members of the Washington Mystics and marveled at the women’s easy competence on the basketball court. They witnessed purity of action as the athletes moved through their drills, seemingly unencumbered by self-doubt. After a short time talking with the women, however, the authors were surprised to hear how they compared their own mental game to that of their male counterparts. The women pointed out that they get hurt feelings, have a hard time shaking off a bad game, and are plagued by the need to please. They expressed envy at what they saw as the innate swagger and resilience of their male peers. As it turns out, the Mystics had verbalized three of the female confidence killers Kay and Shipman would encounter again and again: overthinking, people pleasing, and an inability to let go of past defeats.
When the authors addressed these issues with male managers, they were met with nodding heads. One manager pointed out that women tend to hesitate at key moments. He suspected that this was because women “often aren’t sure what scorecard will be used to judge behavior. And they are afraid to get it wrong.” He went on to point out that sometimes women are judged by arbitrary and changeable metrics, but they have to find a way to assuage those inner doubts because hesitation “can affect whose ideas are adopted, or even who gets a promotion.”
This rang true for me. I remember vividly a difficult period at work where I had made a mistake and was unable to move past it. I felt paralyzed by the weight of my own incompetence. I observed a couple of my more seasoned colleagues and thought, “This would never have happened to them. Why did I even think I could succeed in this field? Maybe I’m just not cut out for this. I should probably find another job.” It took almost a year for me to be able to look back on that period with a more forgiving perspective and admit to myself that my colleagues had certainly made plenty of mistakes. They had managed to learn from them and keep going.
That action, that knuckling down and struggling through, is, according to the authors, the key to confidence. One of my favorite anecdotes in the book involved a young Japanese boy who struggled to draw a three-dimensional figure on the chalkboard in front of his classmates. His teacher repeatedly pointed out that his rendering was incorrect and exhorted him to try again. An American graduate student was observing the class, and he grew increasingly uncomfortable at witnessing the boy’s public “failure.” He became convinced that the boy would burst into tears and was surprised and delighted when instead the boy finally mastered the drawing and beamed with pride as his classmates erupted in applause at his success. Americans, it seems, “see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart. In Asian cultures, they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.” This struggle toward mastery breeds confidence, a faith in one’s own ability not only to achieve a stated objective but also to survive and learn from the failures that ultimately lead to success.
Kay and Shipman embrace the Silicon Valley concept of “failing fast.” This approach lowers the stakes of failure and allows for the forward momentum that a relentless quest for perfection often stymies. The authors offered the example of how women performed better on a test when they were encouraged to answer all of the questions because there was no penalty for guessing. When the fear of failure was removed, women’s test scores improved dramatically.
We increase our confidence by taking action – and accepting that failure often goes hand in hand with initial attempts at unfamiliar tasks. As the authors put together more pieces of the puzzle in their research, “the critical link between confidence and work and mastery suddenly made sense. They form points on a wonderfully virtuous circle. If confidence is a belief in your success, which then stimulates action, you will create more confidence when you take that action… It keeps accumulating, through hard work, through success, and even through failure.”
I found this oddly liberating. I don’t think I realized until I read this book how terrified I was of failure and how that fear made me less effective at work. As I read about other women who felt the same way I imagined what would be different if they had allowed those fears to hold them back. The world would never have benefited from their contributions. I began to recognize that I could learn from failure and keep moving forward just like the women in the book. I realized that what my clients and colleagues needed to see from me was not perfection but the confidence to express why I believed a particular choice was the right one and the courage to follow through on that conviction. I watched as my male colleagues shrugged off setbacks, and I tried (old habits die hard) to imitate that casual lift of the shoulders and forward focus myself.
In addition to taking action, the authors note that other habits like meditation, an intentional focus on gratitude, and assuming postures of strength all help to increase our confidence. Ever the eager student, I read Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg, The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan, and Presence by Amy Cuddy for deeper dives into each discipline. I found each book to be helpful, offering me more tools to increase my sense of inner calm, confidence, and optimism about my place in the world.
When I first met Jennifer, I asked her about how she started her blog. She told me that our mutual friend Betsy Wills encouraged her to dive in and create rather than wait until she had it all figured out, in retrospect an incredible gift This is exactly the kind of advice the authors recommend that we give our friends because – you guessed it – it inspires action. If Jennifer had ignored that advice, waiting instead until everything was perfect, I might not have met her nor had the chance to share the impact that this particular book has had on me. For her sake and mine, I am grateful that when given a choice between holding back in fear or pushing forward with faith and optimism, Jennifer chose the latter.
From Jennifer: Thank you, Betsy Wills, for being that friend. Bacon has been up and running for 3 years as of this week. And thank you, Mary, for this wonderful meditation on confidence and the impact this book has had on you!
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Click here for Dallas Wilt’s post on Presence, by Amy Cuddy.
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Top photo of Katty Kay and Claire Shipman: https://www.dfiles.me/katty-kay-and-claire-shipman.html
Image of Angela Merkel: https://www.economist.com/node/18332786
Image of Elena Delle Donne: https://www.slamonline.com/wnba/elena-delle-donne-traded-to-washington-mystics/#953MVXwqzOwmcIKB.97