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Journalists Kay and Shipman urge women to close the confidence gap

(Photo: HarperCollins Publishers) (Photo: HarperCollins Publishers)

Does success depend as much on confidence as on competence?

Two successful journalists have just written “The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know” where they assert that, yes, success really does depend as much on being confident in your work as it does on being competent to do the work.

But, that’s not the point they’re making.

Co-authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman go on to say that women face a particular crisis — “a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes.”

Relative to their male competitors, women lack self-assurance, they don’t consider they’re ready to be promoted until they’ve met 100 percent of the qualifications, and they routinely underestimate not just their abilities but also their performance.

In short, because women think they’re less competent than they really are, they’re also less self-confident than they should be. It’s a vicious circle.

Put all of this together, and it’s no wonder there are so few women who have climbed to the top of corporate and political America — If the women themselves don’t think they belong there, why should anyone else?

That’s a troubling conclusion.

That conclusion, however, doesn’t seem to fit the authors. Each woman is a highly-successful journalist who definitely doesn’t seem to lack self-confidence.

I asked Katty Kay why despite her obvious professional success — she happens to be the anchor of BBC World News America — why she still fell a bit short in her self-confidence, as she noted in a recent Atlantic piece about the book.

Her answer hinted at what women need to do to develop self-confidence.

“I’ve gotten to where I want to be, but only by forcing myself to do things that tested my confidence – going on shows I found intimidating, applying for jobs that seemed a bit out of reach, and standing up to bosses to insist on doing things my way,” she said in an e-mail.

Despite all that, Kay, along with many women, has spent way too much time attributing her success to luck or to being “in the right place at the right time.”

But that doesn’t seem to be such a problem, since being in the right place at the right time is as important to men as it is to women. Few dispute that.

So, is there more to the story? Are women missing the “self-confidence” gene that would put them in a position where they would be more likely to be in the right place at the right time?

Maybe, maybe not.

Kay and Shipman address the tricky issue of whether women’s brains just aren’t “hard wired” for the kinds of behavior that leads to success so that women are in a disadvantaged position from the get go.

Research shows that women’s and men’s brains are different, but most of these differences don’t have anything to do with confidence. Yet, there are distinctions between men and women that make a difference in confidence levels.

Testosterone is one of those.

“Basically testosterone, which obviously men have more of, gives you a higher tolerance for risk. Studies show that traders make riskier bets on days they have more testosterone in their bodies. Risk is a key factor in confidence — you have to take risks and be prepared to fail to expand your confidence,” Kay explained.

So, nature does explain part of women’s self-confidence shortage.

But, that’s not the whole story. Women in many ways are their own worst enemy.

“We spend too much time ruminating, stewing, thinking over our actions,” Shipman told me. “You may be successful, yes, but not as successful as you might have been if you didn’t spend so much time trying to be perfect.”

“Perhaps this is one reason women aren’t at the top,” she speculated, admitting that her confidence has been hampered by her perfectionism — and by the fact that she didn’t play sports as a girl.

“Because I didn’t play sports, losing wasn’t something that was familiar to me,” she said.

That said, she admits that she’s had a successful career, having been a White House reporter and now a senior correspondent for Good Morning America on ABC.

And, her competence has given her the self-confidence to take on risks just like the male reporters.

“I no longer need to have 45 sources for every one of my stories,” she said. “Over the years, I’ve learned that I can take more risks, to take a stab at a question even if I haven’t prepared the answer ahead of time.”

But, their success isn’t reflected across the board.

For example, President Obama recently referred to the the 77-cents that women make relative to what men make in the American work force as reflecting, in part, discrimination. Yet, the Administration was forced to explain its own gender pay gap when the American Enterprise Institute released a study showing that women at the White House make just 88 cents for every dollar that a man at the White House makes.

The White House explained that the gender pay gap isn’t due to discrimination, but is because women tend to be in the lower-paid occupations.

That explanation, however, just leads to another question. “Why aren’t there more women in the higher-paying jobs at the White House,” as Washington Post writer Nia-Malika Henderson asked? After all, working in the White House attracts some of the country’s best and brightest people who have studied at some of the best schools in the world.

Could it be that even women working right next to the president lack self-confidence?

“The White House women are as confident as they come,” Shipman said. But, she added that even at White House meetings, Valerie Jarrett, president Obama’s senior adviser, has said that there’s still a sense that they need to get women to jump in.

“Just because they’re at the White House doesn’t make them immune to the instincts that women have,” Shipman added.

So, where does the “Confidence Code” leave us? Kay and Shipman aren’t advocating that women become “confidence men” in the bad sense of the word. Anyone who has watched movies like “Catch Me if You Can” or read books like Ron Suskind’s “The Confidence Men” knows that projecting an air of confidence can mask a heck of a lot of incompetence.

“Gaining the trust without earning it is the age old work of confidence men,” according to Suskind, as Bethany McLean noted in her book review for The Washington Post.

Nope, the authors leave us with some tried and true advice.

Nothing succeeds like success. Confidence is what’s needed to turn thoughts into action. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Don’t just stand there, do something.

In fact, doing something is exactly what Kay and Shipman urge us to do. Take the Confidence quiz — and, if you don’t know the answer, just guess — and see where you come out on the confidence scale.

Joann Weiner teaches economics at George Washington University. She has written for Bloomberg, Politics Daily, and Tax Analysts and worked as an economist at the U.S. Treasury Department. Follow her on Twitter @DCEcon.



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