Here’s a confession. I have lived most of my adult life riddled with self-doubt. Sometimes, I felt barely adequate. My inner critic never shut up. Fortunately, I was able to fool an amazing number of people into thinking that I’m basically competent – including my friends, my husband and the people who’ve employed me for the past 40 years. Let’s hope they never find out the truth.
The other day, I asked my husband if he’d ever felt like this. He looked at me, blankly. “No,” he said.
It seems that lack of confidence is overwhelmingly a female thing. It has nothing to do with actual ability or achievement. It is common even among women who present themselves as supremely self-assured. A surprising number of successful, high-achieving women struggle with self-doubt. Over a third glass of wine, they might even admit to it. When you ask them how they got so far, they seldom say, “I was really smart and worked like a dog.” Instead, they say, “I got lucky.”
The confidence gap between the sexes is one of today’s hottest topics. Here’s leadership expert Erica Anderson in this week’s Forbes: “Women, I have come to believe after having thousands of conversations on this topic over the past 30 years, tend to be much more self-critical than men – and that really gets in their way when it comes to accomplishing all they’re capable of doing at work.”
You could, of course, look at it another way. The problem is really male overconfidence, which gives men a natural advantage. Men talk big, even when they can’t deliver. At one stage of my career, I spent a lot of time in meetings where men proposed audacious business schemes that were also terrible. “That’s not going to work.” I was dying to say. But I did not want to be seen as a non-team-player, so I shut up. These schemes crashed and burned, but the perpetrators typically skipped happily along to the next big thing.
According to the authors of a new book, The Confidence Code, featured in the new issue of The Atlantic, this gap isn’t just a nuisance. It’s a “particular crisis for women.” They argue that it helps explain everything from why women don’t ask for raises as often as men (and when they do, they ask for less) to why the glass ceiling still seems so rock-solid.
In other words, they suggest that systemic discrimination is less important than we thought. The real problem is that women routinely underestimate their own abilities (while men routinely overestimate theirs). Many male managers privately complain that their best female subordinates simply don’t assert themselves enough. And substantial research shows that women won’t go after new assignments or promotions if they think there’s even a small chance they’ll fail. Men are much more tolerant of risk, and far more likely to think they’ll succeed.
Inconveniently, competence and confidence do not go hand in hand. One of my favourite examples is the calculus exam. Men say, “Hey, I’m going to ace it!” Women of the same ability are sure they’re going to bomb. Other, equally smart women aren’t in the room to begin with because they think calculus is too hard.
We have other strikes against us. Women tend to be perfectionists, which makes it a lot harder to feel good about ourselves. We tend to brood on our mistakes. Please don’t ask me about my experiences in graduate school. I studied great literature with great scholars like Northrop Frye, and one of my professors even told me I could have a future in the academic world. In some ways, it was the best year of my life. But that’s not what I typically remember. What I remember is the time I mispronounced the word “misogyny” in Robertson Davies’s graduate seminar. To this day, the memory floods me with shame.
Women also suffer from worry-wartism. It seems to be congenital. If we don’t have something serious to worry about, we’ll make stuff up. My own totally unscientific theory is that we have a worry gene that’s connected to our primal need to protect our children from marauding tigers and poison plants. If those aren’t available, our worry gene attaches itself to something else.
So where does all this stuff come from? A generation ago, the confidence gap was generally attributed to the different ways that boys and girls were socialized. Girls achieved less because they were raised to be more timid, to have lower expectations, to let boys take the lead. If only we encouraged girls to play with fire trucks, and got teachers to call on them more in class, their confidence would soar.
Fast-forward 30 years and much has changed. Girls are out-achieving boys in school. They’re better at following the rules and meeting expectations. But then they hit the working world and the guys wind up on top. Why?
Today, brain science and evolutionary psychology have pretty well demolished the blank-slate theory of gender differences. We now know that male and female brains are subtly different, and that these differences (along with hormones) have powerful influences on personality and behaviour, in ways I’ve described here.
Is all lost, then? Maybe not. As the authors of The Confidence Code point out, our brains are malleable. With training and persistence, we can alter our emotions and behaviour.
There’s more good news, too: It gets better. A few years ago, my inner critic went away. I have no idea why, but it probably has to do with age. I have a much better opinion of myself now, and I’m fairly confident that the critic won’t be coming back. What a relief.