Skip to main content

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Men are more likely than women to think they are right when they are, in fact, wrong. They predict they will do better on tests. At work, they ask for promotions and raises more often. They speak more at meetings. That's the research collected in The Confidence Code, the latest book to advise professional women how to get ahead, pointing out that their tendency toward perfectionism and self-doubt is the reason they're falling behind.

The studies and anecdotes cited by the authors, journalist Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, in their cover story in Atlantic magazine are indeed disheartening. The successful banker who said she wasn't sure she deserved her promotion. The All-star WNBA basketball athlete who noted that even the "last [male] player on the bench, who doesn't get to play a single game" exudes more confidence than more talented female players. The result of this lack of confidence, the authors conclude is that there women earn less, may avoid – even subconsciously – more competitive fields, and under-represented in top executive positions. Like Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In, they also offer a prescription for stepping up.

But isn't the real hazard that we put too much stock in over-confidence (the kind not supported by competence)? To quote an Arabian proverb: "He who knows not and knows not that he knows not … is a fool, shun him." And yet the opposite happens; nations and businesses too often reward the blowhards, and the results – from wartime to Wall Street – are legion. The failure to distinguish between luck and skill is what sinks many a gambler, and not just the ones in Vegas. In a society today, we much bemoan the vacuum of smart, effective, moral leaders. Consider the qualities elevated in Forbes' list of the best 100 quotes on leadership: courage and charisma, obviously, but also the ability to share credit, heed the opinion of others, to assess failure, to self-reflect. Not exactly the qualities of a strutting peacock.

Confidence is surely a quality worth cultivating (although, with our own kids, the current worry is that we might have planted the self-esteem seed too well.) But what's the message here? If only women were as mouthy and cocky (ahem) as men, the problem would be solved. Hardly. The authors cite testosterone and brain wiring as one reason for the timid female spirit, but how does that line up with the ferocity so many women exhibit outside work? (Example: If a student is being bullied at school, or needs extra help, you can bet it's still most likely mom marching in, demanding remedy.)

That's because when it comes to families, women are expected to be fierce. Less so in the boardroom, where, as the authors of The Confidence Code point out, expressing opinions too forcefully, is often interpreted less as commanding and more as catty or overbearing. (Just ask Hillary Clinton, who surely ranks among the most qualified potential candidates for president ever.) Women get the message, from when they are little girls that, while boys are expected to wrestle on the playground, they should be polite and quiet – and, yes, perfect. Perfectionism, as researchers have noted, is a risk-hobbling trait more evident in young women. Men are more likely to seek a promotion even if they fall well short of the sought-after qualifications, Kay and Shipman report, while women hesitate until they have 100 per cent. When boys mess up, and get in trouble for it, they are learning to handle failure.

Working on a new book on girls and body image, writer Peggy Orenstein made a related observation in a recent interview with the Globe and Mail: young women report having to fulfill impossible standards that require coming first in their class, leading the school council, plus looking "hot" while doing so. Is it any wonder then that self-doubt creeps it, and lingers long after graduation?

Young women need to learn to demand fair compensation and recognition for their talents and to find mentors who will guide them. That's a given. But this "problem" can't be placed solely on them. Society still sidelines mothers and judges women for being too outspoken. Men don't get called "pushy" or "bossy." Changing those attitudes requires more equitable workplace policy, clear messaging from the top, as well as reversing institutional gender bias. Seeing through overconfidence to recognizing the potential leadership skills in humility and competence is good for business. Who really wants slick, when they can have smart?