Successful journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman noticed a troubling trend among the successful women they work with, interview, and call friends. Nearly all of them, even the most powerful and seemingly self-assured, struggle with confidence in their professional lives. Starting with in-depth interviews and expanding into meeting with scientists and getting their own DNA tested, Kay and Shipman unraveled the confidence gap, its many causes, and how to overcome it in their book The Confidence Code. Read the eleven key insights below:
Women in the workplace suffer from a confidence complex.
Extensive research has shown that women seek out fewer opportunities and undervalue themselves (especially in salary negotiation). Furthermore, male employers feel limited in expressing concerns about their female employees’ confidence at risk of sounding sexist, even though confidence is a key qualification for many jobs.
Confidence is often seen as a showy, unattractive quality, especially among women.
However, it’s actually a necessary part of a fulfilled life. Confidence is necessary to achieving flow, the highest state of concentration. It’s when your skills and the challenge of the task at hard are perfectly matched — you’re actively engaged and not overwhelmed. Flow state, and confidence in general, are huge contributors to general happiness and well-being.
Confidence is more than just a feeling.
The common understanding of confidence is feeling good about yourself, your abilities, and your life. However, confidence is more complicated. It’s also a concrete tool that aids us in objective decision making.
Women often rely on perfection — matching 100% of the qualifications — for their confidence.
The truly powerful source of confidence, though, is mastery. Mastery differs from perfection in that it refers to the entire process of an endeavor rather than an end goal. It’s about enjoying challenge and thriving in the midst of difficult work, and it’s a key way to build confidence through hard work. It’s also contagious.
Self-esteem and confidence are distinct qualities.
Self-esteem is more pervasive and stable than confidence. Confidence is about what we feel we can achieve, whereas self-esteem relates more to our position in the universe. The two traits overlap and interact, but they aren’t interchangeable. If your sense of self is driven by accomplishment, they may be more intertwined, but someone who values a moral code and being a good person will have more distinct self-esteem and confidence.
Confidence is partially driven by your genetics.
The serotonin transporter gene in monkeys directly affects confidence. There are three versions of it, and each correlates to a certain level of anxiety or resilience. The research translates to our human brains as well — though scientists debate the degree to which confidence is written into our genetic code, it’s a large proportion. Some say up to 50% of a person’s confidence is genetic.
Though biologically driven, confidence is greatly impacted by nurture and choice.
The “anxious” gene in the monkeys mentioned above doesn’t make them vulnerable to their environment, it makes them impressionable. This means that having the short end of the confidence gene doesn’t sentence you to a life-time of second-guessing — your environment can shape you into a confident person even with anxiety written into your biological makeup.
Stereotype threat often leaves women behind men in fields like math and science, but it can be an unlikely motivator.
When a group faces a negative stereotype — like “women are bad at math” — they underperform in that area. However, when a woman turns that stereotype on its head, understanding that others may have presuppositions about her capabilities and adjusting her behavior to specifically target those misconceptions, she’s motivated — and successful — in battling it.
Bad habits common among women–like focusing too much on likability, ruminating, and a fixation with appearance–aren’t women’s fault, but they are often their downfall.
Trying to be likable can kill confidence (nobody is universally well-liked!), but likability is crucial for professional success — especially among women. Overthinking things limits action, which is key to confidence and success. And women face a huge social burden when it comes to appearance, presenting yet another hurdle.
Men and women’s brains are much more alike than they are different, but some key idiosyncracies explain why women trend towards certain behaviors.
A woman’s brain tends to be more active than a man’s–one study shows that women have 30% more neurons firing at any given time–which kicks positive things like empathy and intuition into gear alongside anxiety and insomnia. Plus, women produce hormones much differently than men (including less serotonin, the aforementioned confidence hormone). It’s important to view these differences with self-compassion and an understanding of the huge advantages they can provide.
Despite the many factors contributing to the confidence gap, confidence is still something women can control.
The now-common phrase “lean in” hits on exactly what women need to do to overcome the confidence gap. It’s a matter of action: doing and deciding without hesitation, understanding that what holds you back isn’t a lack of qualification but a lack of confidence.