Women have made much progress in gaining equality in work and life over the past half century. In many developed countries such as the US and the UK, women now earn more college and graduate degrees than men do. Women make up half the workforce and are closing the gap in middle management.
But however hard women work, it is the men around them who continue to get promoted faster and be paid more. In both the corporate and the political worlds, women are nearly absent from the top positions.
It has been argued that women’s maternal instinct makes it harder for them to find a balance between their home and work lives. Other commentators say cultural and institutional barriers hinder female success. But according to a latest best-seller, all these arguments miss something more basic: women’s lack of confidence.
The book, tilted The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance, is co-authored by distinguished women journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. Success depends as much on confidence as competence, according to Kay and Shipman, and there is “a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes”.
In two decades of covering American politics as journalists, Kay and Shipman have interviewed some of the most influential women in the country. In their jobs and lives, they walk among women anyone would assume to be brimming with confidence. And yet their experience suggests many of these women are full of self-doubt.
Even Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told the writers: “There are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.”
In a feature story in The Atlantic, Kay and Shipman say that conversations like this inspired them to write the book. After expansive research, they found that, compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for a promotion until they meet 100 percent of the requirements; and they generally underestimate not only their abilities but also their performance.
According to The New York Times, in one recent British study, a business school professor asked students how much they would deserve to earn five years after graduation. The women’s estimates were 20 percent lower than the men’s.
The writers point out that a lack of confidence is behind a number of familiar female habits. For example, many women have the tendency to take the blame when things go wrong, while crediting circumstance — or other people — for their successes.
Perfectionism is another confidence killer, the writers point out. Women don’t answer questions until they are totally sure of the answer. They don’t submit a report until they’ve edited it a thousand times.
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.