What Holds Us Back: Is Confidence as Important as Competence in the Workplace?

A new book reveals a surprising truth about how women view their own professional abilities.

The Confidence Code authors Claire Shipman, a reporter for ABC News, and Katty Kay, anchor of BBC World News America, have spent two decades covering American politics. During that time, they’ve interviewed some of the most influential female leaders in the United States — and were struck by how many of these women expressed a lack of self-confidence. In The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know, Shipman and Kay explore why so many women, even those who have achieved a high level of professional success, doubt their own abilities. They poke into every corner — from genetics (yes, there is a “confidence gene”), to neuroscience, psychology, and cultural norms — for insights.

While they didn’t set out to write a self-help book, Shipman and Kay provide tools to help women recognize and then quash the self-doubts that hold them back in their careers. Here is an excerpt from The Confidence Code.

It’s been half a century since women forced open the boardroom doors, and the workplace terrain still looks very different for us than it does for men. The statistics are well-known, and they aren’t pretty. Women earn on average 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Four percent of CEOs in the Fortune 500 are women. Twenty of the 100 United States senators are women, and even that is celebrated as a record high.

We now know this discrepancy isn’t caused by lack of competence. Over the past fifty years, women in the United States have reversed the education gap and turned it in their favor, now earning more undergraduate degrees, more graduate degrees, and even more Ph.D.s than men. A half dozen global studies, from Pepperdine to the IMF [International Monetary Fund], now show that companies that do employ women in large numbers outperform their competitors by every measure of profitability.

When women are given a fair shot at success, they do well. Take the intriguing case of classical musicians. Back in 1970, women made up only 5 percent of the musicians in America’s top symphony orchestras. By the mid-1990s, we were at 25 percent. The gains came after orchestras introduced a remarkably simple change in how they chose their new hires. During their auditions, they put up a screen to hide the candidates’ identity. The judges heard the music, but they couldn’t see whether the performer was a man or a woman. Based exclusively on the sweet sound of performance, women began getting hired in greater numbers.

[S]ome of the reasons women lack confidence can be found in our environment. Sometimes the inequities are outrageous and obvious. Often, though, the cards are stacked against us innocently, and with the very best intentions.

Take a trip down memory lane to your elementary school classroom. There you’ll find the insidious seeds of society’s gender imbalance, because it’s there that we were first rewarded for being good, instead of energetic, rambunctious, or even pushy.

It is in school that girls are expected to keep their heads down, study quietly, and do as they’re told. We didn’t charge around the halls like wild animals, and we didn’t get into fights during recess, and today’s girls still provide a bit of reliable calm behavior for overstressed, overworked, and underpaid teachers. From our youngest years, we learn that cooperating like this seems to pay off.

Peggy McIntosh, associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, thinks that encouraging our girls to be compliant can do real long-term damage, but she also thinks that it’s hard to avoid. It’s actually easier for young girls than young boys to behave well, because our brains pick up on emotional cues from an earlier age. So we do it because we can, and then because we’re rewarded for it….Soon we learn that we are most valuable, and most in favor, when we do things the right way: neatly and quietly. We begin to crave the approval we get for being good.

The result is that making mistakes, and taking risks, behavior critical for confidence building, is also behavior girls try to avoid, to their detriment. Research shows that when a boy fails, he takes it in stride, believing it’s due to a lack of effort. When a girl makes a similar mistake she sees herself as sloppy, and comes to believe that it reflects a lack of skill….

Most of us learned the good girl lesson all too well. But it doesn’t prepare us very well for the real world. Carol Dweck, author of the best seller Mindset and a Stanford psychology professor, puts it this way: “If life were one long grade school, women would be the undisputed rulers of the world.”

From The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman © 2014 Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.