The Conversation


Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s May cover story delved into why men tend to be so much more confident than women, particularly in the workplace, and why many women who are confident are perceived negatively. The story gained traction when Jill Abramson, The New York Times’ first female executive editor—who had a reputation for being “pushy”—was fired in mid-May. Abramson, The Guardian’s Lauren Maffeo noted, “has accidentally become the first test case for Shipman and Kay’s confidence gap.”

By focusing so heavily on the “confidence gap,” Kay and Shipman ignore the structural and institutional barriers to women’s success. Women may be more reluctant to negotiate pay, but they are also more likely to face professional penalties if they decide to have children and take disproportionate responsibility for childcare as working moms—to say nothing of outright gender discrimination.

The reality is that even women who have leapt across the “confidence gap” into upper-level management are not always regarded as highly as their male counterparts. How do we know that projecting confidence will pay off for us professionally? And do we really want to create a work culture where women are told that to succeed they must emulate the business strategies of powerful men? …

There is value in bucking up, of course. But the confidence gap argument is also a useful scapegoat for male managers who claim that they simply can’t find qualified female candidates for upper-level positions. Such managers expressed “enormous frustration” with women’s lack of confidence, but feared encouraging them would come off as “sexist” in the Atlantic piece. But we cannot treat a lack of confidence as an involuntary affliction to be tiptoed around, or as an irrational response women just need to get over already.

Amanda Duberman
Excerpt from a Huffington Post article

The argument that women are our own worst enemies in achieving equality with men is exactly backwards. We are not the problem. Women recognize that we are judged based not on competence or results but on presentation. As documented in the article, women excel in school, where we are judged by empirical results of tests, not based on how confident we “feel.” In the real world, women who express their opinions in the “wrong way” are seen as narcissistic bitches or self-effacing weaklings. Either way, we lose.

To solve a problem, you must acknowledge it. This article addresses the wrong problem and ignores the unfair reality that puts women in this position. Call me strident or bitchy, but I am confident that I am right!

Judy Strong
Bellevue, Wash.

Instead of suggesting that women learn from an early age to take their lumps in competitive sports and playground razzing, why not identify male bravado as the more destructive gender-correlated personality dysfunction? Self-questioning, skepticism, and perfectionism are great survival mechanisms for keeping our dumb, imperfect species out of trouble. Do we really want women emulating poker players and race-car drivers, or would society be better off if we dudes took a page from our self-doubting sisters’ playbook?

Skip Griffin
Reno, Nev.

“The Confidence Gap” leaves some interesting implications unexplored. Women’s self-doubt may be a gift in disguise, for it appears to protect them from self-deluding grandiosity—which benefits their workplaces and communities: the authors cite studies finding that “companies employing women in large numbers outperform their competitors on every measure of profitability.”

Perhaps we need to question social norms that reward men for overconfidence. Leaders less prone to overconfidence might have spared us the global financial meltdown, the longest war in American history, and other disasters.

Elizabeth Gand
Oakland, Calif.

While almost everyone agrees that it would be good to have more women rise to the top of corporate leadership, would the evolution of women’s brains so they have the more masculine trait of innate (delusional?) confidence provide the diversity at the top we are seeking? Don’t we really want to increase the representation of women at the top because we value women’s qualities as they are? Would we really be adding diversity to the boardroom or senior management if the only women who rise are those who most exhibit male characteristics?

John Arndt
San Anselmo, Calif.

As a member of the clinical faculty at a leading medical school and a private confidence coach, I’m thrilled to see this report. Ten years ago, I began teaching shy medical students “tricks of the trade” for appearing confident, in the hopes that this would improve physician-patient relationships, patient reporting, and treatment compliance. Early on I noticed that just by practicing techniques for appearing confident, my students began to feel more confident. Confidence can be learned, and it has enormous positive implications for improving lives.

Sioux Messinger
Sonoma, Calif.

It’s interesting to read the evidence as a guy, especially if you’re a self-aggrandizing pundit who covers politics and public life. I almost never see problems caused by underconfidence, but I see (and create) problems related to overconfidence every day.

Much of the recent psychological research also suggests that overconfidence is our main cognitive problem, not the reverse …

So my first reaction when reading of female underconfidence is not simply that this is a problem. It’s to ask, how can we inject more … self-doubt and self-policing into the wider culture. How can each of us get a better mixture of “female” self-doubt and “male” self-assertion?

But my second reaction is to notice that people are phenomenally terrible at estimating their own self-worth. Some Americans seem to value themselves ridiculously too little while others value themselves ridiculously too highly.

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