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Women and Confidence

Today I'm writing about an article that appears in that most eclectic and intellectually provocative magazine, The Atlantic. The article that particularly engaged me this month was entitled The Confidence Gap, the authors (Katie Kay and Claire Shipman) of which have researched the subject deeply.

The thesis of the article is that a large part of the disparity between salaries of men and women ( which, when all factors*are accounted for, is less than the 77% generally cited, but significant nonetheless ) can be accounted for by a lack of confidence in many women. Conversely, men tend to be overconfident.

Success in business correlates just about as closely with confidence as it does with competence. Of course misplaced confidence will backfire, but by and large when people are confident they take actions that contribute to career advancement: pursuing promotion opportunities, talking more and earlier in meetings, proposing new ideas. The article suggests that women are reluctant to take as many of these actions, stating for example that women generally don't apply for promotion unless they feel they meet 100% of the qualifications.

There are both biological and cultural reasons that men are more confident of themselves than women. Briefly, the main biological factor is that men have approximately 10 times the testosterone levels of women, and testosterone is strongly associated with aggressiveness, risk taking, and competitiveness, all of which contribute to confidence. 

The chief cultural factor? Expectations of / limitations on women that have been in place in most cultures for thousands of years.  In these cultures women are meant to be subservient to men, and to focus on the domestic roles of child bearer, mother, cook, and cleaner.

But there's another important factor, lying somewhere between the biological and the cultural that comes into play: men are larger/taller, stronger, and have lower voices (Yes lower voices signal confidence - just think of what happens to your voice when you're nervous - it automatically rises). All of these attributes are associated with greater deference from others, which of course impacts confidence strongly.

There is absolutely no question that many women need to build their confidence. levels, and that this is easier said than done. It can, however, be done, especially with the assistance of a therapist or coach. But I believe that women need to tread carefully as they build their confidence....they, for a number of unfortunate reasons, aren't "allowed" to display the same behavior, or use the very same techniques , as men do. As the article states:

"Yes, women suffer consequences from their lack of confidence  - but when they do behave assertively, they may suffer a whole other set of consequences, ones that men don't typically experience." To take a simple example, a woman who acts as boldly as a man may be perceived as a bitch.....the guy: just a go-getter. By the way, note that this double standard operates among groups other than females: even to this day African American males need to exercise more vigilance than whites to make sure that their behavior falls within an "acceptable" range.

For 8 years I worked for a woman who was a pioneer in confidence and success: Mary Wells Lawrence, the first female head of an advertising agency, and the first person to take an advertising agency public. Mary was an attractive woman with a flirtatious manner which she utilized to the fullest in dealings with clients, virtually all of whom were men. That, combined with a lot of confidence and a lot of competence, allowed her to rise to the top of Madison Avenue only a few years post the Mad Men era.

I urge women to utilize the "natural" strengths many of them have, whether compassion, or crafting compromise, in addition to confidence and competence.  Women's generally superior interpersonal skills can lead to superior career results.

*among these are women's over representation in such low paying occupations as social work and teaching, and the fact that many women drop out of the labor force to have and raise children, thereby stalling career advancement.

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