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Why Confidence Is A Catch-22 For Women

Are women to blame for their lack of confidence or is it our perception of confidence that needs fixing?

Why Confidence Is A Catch-22 For Women
[Image: Flickr user Emilio García]

There’s no shortage of statistical data flooding in about gender inequality in the American workplace.

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Women hold a paltry 4.8% of the Fortune 500 CEO positions. And their pay is famously lower than men in all fields. Even in careers dominated by women such as administration and social work, they get the short end of the stick.

This despite the fact that studies from Goldman Sachs and Columbia University have found that companies who employ large numbers of women outperform their competitors. Explanations for the gender pay gap have often pointed the finger at discrimination. But in their book, The Confidence Code: The Art and Science of Self-Assurance–What Women Should Know, journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman argue that a lack of confidence is to blame for holding women back from climbing the corporate ladder. Even Sheryl Sandberg told Kay and Shipman a year before publishing Lean In that there were still days she woke up feeling like a fraud and unsure of herself.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Kay and Shipman paint the picture like this: “Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities,” they write.

Although Kay and Shipman argue women need more confidence in order to climb the ranks, their research also revealed confident women face a catch-22 since the traits that are commonly associated with confident men (behaving assertively, speaking up first at meetings) are viewed negatively when displayed by women.

A study by Victoria Brescoll at the Yale School of Management demonstrated this. A group of male and female students were asked to rank a fictitious CEO who talked more in a meeting than others. Both the male and female participants viewed the woman as less competent than a male CEO who talked for the same amount of time.

In another experiment, the participants were asked to imagine themselves either as the most senior or the most junior figure in a meeting and were then asked how much they’d talk during the meeting. The males who imagined themselves as the senior figure reported they would talk more while the men who picked the junior position said they’d talk less. When it came to the women, those who selected the senior position said they would talk the same amount as those who picked the junior position, citing fear of being disliked as the rationale.

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While women suffer consequences for their lack of confidence (being held back from career advancement, for example), they suffer a whole other set of consequences when they display traits commonly associated with confidence. “If a woman speaks up first at meetings, she risks being disliked or even–let’s be blunt–being labeled a bitch,” write Kay and Shipman.

Faced with these polarizing forces, it’s no wonder women suffer from a crisis of confidence.

Hat Tip: The Atlantic

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About the author

Lisa Evans is a freelance writer from Toronto who covers topics related to mental and physical health. She strives to help readers make small changes to their daily habits that have a profound and lasting impact on their productivity and overall job satisfaction

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