Talking about women’s lack of confidence may be counterproductive

A new book by newscasters Katty Kay and Clare Shipman argues women’s timidity is holding them back at work – but does it perpetuate the idea that confidence is a masculine trait.

Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, authors of The Confidence Code. Photo: Stephen Voss/Redux/Eyevine
Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, authors of The Confidence Code. Photo: Stephen Voss/Redux/Eyevine

Women haven’t tired of hearing about their lack of confidence at work – or, at least, that’s what publishers are betting on. And it seems to be paying off. A year after Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In took over the bestseller lists, two journalists, BBC News anchor Katty Kay and ABC’s senior correspondent Claire Shipman, have published The Confidence Code, which argues that women’s timidity is holding them back in the workplace. Already excerpts from the book have been published and it is being discussed far and wide, while Lean In has sold more than 1.6 million copies so far and seems to have spawned almost that many op-eds and blog posts.

The picture Kay and Shipman paint is dire. Women across the spectrum, it seems, hesitate to put themselves up for promotion, ask for pay rises or voice their ideas. Even the most successful apparently suffer from “imposter syndrome”, chalking their achievements up to being in the right place at the right time. Indeed, in a recent survey of British managers, half the women – but less than a third of the men – admitted to feeling insecure about their job performance. A study of Hewlett-Packard employees found that women applied for promotion only when they met 100 per cent of the job requirements, whereas men were comfortable putting themselves up for promotion if they met just 60 per cent of the criteria.

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

Although we can’t stop talking about women’s lack of confidence, that might not be doing us any favours. The confidence crusaders believe that if they make women aware of the problem they will adjust their behaviour. But in propagating the idea that confidence is a masculine trait, women like Sandberg, Shipman and Kay make self-assured women feel even more like outliers – and perpetuate the very stereotype they want to dismantle.

Arguing that a problem ought to be ignored rather than confronted may be unusual, but confidence is a hard-to-define concept. Shipman and Kay offer a few practical tips – sit up straight, hold your chin up, get more sleep – but ultimately the key to confidence is self-deception. Convincing yourself you’re better than you think is a complicated exercise in doublethink, and, for women, those mental gymnastics only get harder the more we’re exposed to the stereotype that we’re the less confident gender.

Study after study has found evidence for “stereotype threat”: people conform to the set ideas that are applied to them. The effect is especially strong when people are actively reminded of those ideas. In one study, men and women with a similar background in maths were set a series of problems. One group was told that men and women performed about the same on this test; another group was told that men tended to score higher. In the group that was “gender-primed” men outperformed women, but the differences disappeared when the subjects were told the scores didn’t vary by gender. In another experiment, psychologists made women play an online game of chess against an unseen opponent. When the women were told that their opponent was male, they played more defensively and were less likely to win. Their performance dropped even further if the researchers reminded them of the stereotype that women are bad at chess.

There are many situations in which awareness leads to meaningful change. But by bombarding us with evidence that women are less confident than men, proponents of the “confidence gap” are doing women a disservice.