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Closing the 'confidence gap'

In an April 14 article from The Atlantic, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman explored the well documented “confidence gap” between men and women. Women, they found, are consistently likely to underrate their abilities, to credit others with their own success and to take fewer risks. Though equally competent, women are consistently less confident in their abilities. And Princetonians are not immune: Female students feel less comfortable speaking out in precept, running for leadership positions or applying for fellowships, and they are more likely to feel like imposters who were mistakenly admitted (a phenomenon I wrote about last year). Both on- and off-campus, solutions have encouraged women to play with the boys by simply being more confident. Like Nike, their slogan is “just do it.” Sheryl Sandberg, for example, encourages women to “lean in” in the corporate setting, pushing aside their fear of failure and instead trusting in their abilities to take on leadership roles alongside their male colleagues. Similarly, in a column last fall, Marni Morse urged female students to speak up in class even when they weren’t sure about what they were saying. Never mind that confident women are more likely to be perceived as arrogant or even bitchy: The 1969 “BITCH Manifesto” declares, “Bitch is Beautiful,” and celebrates the Bitch for discarding female norms in favor of her less likeable male counterparts. The message of these credos is clear: Women should feel comfortable being confident, and men shouldn’t shame them for doing so.

But as much as I applaud Sandberg and the other “bitches” who have paved the way for strong, intelligent women to speak up and lean in, these solutions do little to actually address the confidence deficit underlying the problem of female leadership and participation. If we want to tackle the confidence gap, we have to start at the root: by fostering confidence in women. We can’t simply assume that confidence is a trait that women can conjure out of thin air or that all women have some hidden tide of confidence burbling under their timid, ladylike exteriors. The confidence gap is not, I believe, a problem of expression; women are not less confident just because they feel uncomfortable flying in the face of feminine social norms by being smart, sassy and loud.

Rather, the confidence gap starts internally, at the individual level. Many women have a deeply ingrained belief that they’re just not as capable as they actually are. The article from The Atlantic points to an experiment involving math tests where women performed on par with their male peers but, before they knew the results, rated their scores lower. This lack of confidence may be as much biological as social: Kay and Shipman note that the anterior cingulate cortex (which they refer to as “the worrywart center” of the brain) is larger in female brains, offering one potential explanation for the observation that women are more likely to focus on flaws in their work.

These brain differences need not be viewed as deterministic, but they do help explain why women are less willing to participate in precept, run for leadership positions or apply for fellowships. On the societal level, too, it explains the paucity of women in the upper echelons of business. Women simply figure that they just aren’t good enough and often don’t even bother trying to succeed. For this reason, a solution to the confidence gap requires more than a call to “lean in.” It requires encouraging women that they are competent enough to do so in the first place.

So how do we foster confidence in female students? The solution is likely to be much larger and multi-tiered than I can sketch in 800 words. But I know that in my own experience, a professor or preceptor’s assurance that my voice matters can make all the difference. I am compelled to speak up in precept, for example, when a preceptor references a point I’ve made in a reading response or paper. I feel capable in my ability to compete for internships, fellowships or jobs when professors make a point of letting me know they are happy to write me a recommendation. Where internal confidence is lacking, external confidence can foster it.

Of course, precepts and seminars are discussion-based events by definition. And the business world needs people who are willing to be bossy and loud and, well, bitchy. I don’t mean to suggest that women need not speak up or lean in. But I do want to argue that rather than putting the onus on women to simply be confident, authority figures have a role to play in offering assurances of competence that might help foster confidence at the individual level. If we want women to truly gain confidence — rather than to only occasionally project it — that will take a more measured and deeper approach than to “just do it.” We will have to tell women that their voice matters enough to make speaking up worth doing at all.

Cameron Langford is a politics major from Davidson, N.C. She can be reached at cplangfo@princeton.edu.

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