The Confidence Gap: Why Do Women Underestimate Themselves and How Can We Change That?

The Kitchen Table

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You ever get presented with an opportunity that you’re really excited about, and then pretty much instantly plunge into despair that you’re not enough—good enough, smart enough, qualified enough, whatever—to do it? Just the other day, I was faced with a really amazing opportunity to flex my writing muscles with a new project. At first, I was ecstatic. It’s something I’ve always said I’d like to do, and it had seemingly been dropped into my lap. My second emotion was pure dread. I’ve never done this before. This is out of my wheelhouse I don’t know the first thing about starting a project like this. Why should I even attempt this? What if it ends up being the worst thing ever and everyone hates it?

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then you might be a man. I don’t say that disparagingly at all. It’s just that tons of studies over the years have shown that men don’t suffer this crippling lack of confidence in their abilities in the same way women do. Some of the most successful, brilliant and powerful women have experienced feelings of inadequacy, and have felt underqualified for their positions, even in cases where they were probably overqualified. What. is. the. deal?

What is the Confidence Gap?

Cornell University did a study on this phenomenon—specifically, the confidence gap between men and women. The study found that men tend to overestimate their abilities and performance. Women, on the other hand, underestimate both. And that feeling of being fraudulent? That’s a real thing, called “the imposter syndrome.” According to Forbes, “Women frequently express that they don’t feel they deserve their job and are ‘imposters’ who could be found out at any moment.”

According to Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, “Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities.” That might not seem like that big of a deal, but it really is. Kay and Shipman write that success is just as closely correlated with confidence as it is with competence. The result? Despite the huge progress women have made in entering higher education and the workforce, we are still underrepresented at the highest levels of leadership. We are still asking for less money than men are. We are still shying away from upward movement for fear that we aren’t good enough.

While men can certainly suffer from self-doubt, study after study shows that men are far more likely to lean toward overconfidence. That confidence manifests in very significant ways—Hewlett-Packard found that women working there only applied for a promotion when they thought they met 100% of the qualifications, but men were comfortable applying when they met only 60% of the qualifications. This confirms what Kay and Shipman write: “Women feel confident only when they are perfect. Or practically perfect.”

There are several possible reasons for all of this, which you can read about in Kay and Shipman’s book if you’re interested. But I won’t go into all that detail here. I want to focus on what we can do to change it. Most of us can’t just snap our fingers and become more confident in ourselves. Like most things in life, this is a process, and it’s one that I’m working on in myself. I’m not a confidence expert by any means, but I do think there are some practical ways that we can fight the urge to make ourselves small in a world that desperately needs us to stand tall.

Fighting for Confidence

  • Take credit. Women are much more likely than men to credit their success to external circumstances. We were just “in the right place at the right time.” Or we just “got lucky” with that job offer. Let’s take a pointer from our male counterparts and actually take credit where credit is due. You work hard. You are talented. It isn’t conceited or gloating to acknowledge that you’ve earned the right to be where you are. Own that.
  • Stop equating good work with perfection. Hundreds of years ago, Voltaire pinned this problem down, writing, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Your work is not only valuable when it’s finally “perfect” in your eyes. It’s good now. It has value now. If you wait until you feel everything is perfect to move, you will probably be still for a very long time.
  • Don’t undervalue yourself. Economics professor Linda Babcock found in studies of business school students that men negotiate their salaries four times as often as women do. When women do negotiate, they ask for 30% less money than men do. Research the value of your profession, and don’t be afraid to charge what you are worth. We only perpetuate the issue of the pay gap when we allow fear to dictate what we ask for. Not to mention—creatives in particular, when you accept pennies for your hard work, you devalue the market. Know your worth and fight for it.
  • Forbid negative self-talk. If we want to move from a place of fear (of making mistakes, of not performing perfectly) to a place of confidence, we have to refocus our energy from scrutinizing our flaws to applauding our strengths. That doesn’t mean we don’t reflect and evaluate. But it means that we don’t dwell on everything that is seemingly wrong with us. When those thoughts that we’re not good enough or smart enough to pull something off arise, we beat them back with the thoughts that deserve a place in our minds. We are smart. We are qualified. We are capable of great things.

I’m still at the beginning of this journey, friends. So if you are too, you’re not alone! If you have tips for how you stay confident and fight those feelings of inadequacy, please don’t hesitate to share.

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