Q: What makes you think that self-confidence is a good thing? I the past I have had far too many employees, both male and female, who were far more confident than their abilities warranted. It’s much easier to help and encourage people to complete a task than it is to clean up the mess they made through over-confidence.
A: We agree that a lot of over confidence is not a good thing (think 2008 financial crash) Many men tend to lean toward over confidence, Columbia Business School has found that men tend to overestimate their abilities by some 30%. The trouble is that women tend to skew toward underestimating their abilities and it is holding them back from trying new challenges. Ideally we would raise women’s perception of their abilities to be more in line with their actual abilities, that way they would feel able to apply for promotions, speak up in public and take more risks. Interestingly the many psychologists we interviewed believe that on balance of a bit of over confidence in life is better than a bit of under confidence – because it propels us to try things, to take action and to live a more fulfilled life. We were surprised by this, but the conclusion was very clear.
Q: Do women also hold back because they are more fearful of other women? I feel like women are very competitive with one another and I often hold back because I don’t feel the same support from specifically women when things are going well for me vs. when I am down and out and my confidence is low.
A: This is such a tricky issue and yes, we’ve definitely heard tales of women not feeling they are supported by other women, particularly more senior women. In our experience however this doesn’t seem to be supported by evidence of a pattern and generally speaking women are more supportive of women than men might be. Indeed, companies with more women at the top tend to see a greater number of women rise up through the ranks.
One way to get other women to support you when things are going well might be to bring them on to your team. Make an extra effort to show you realise your success is part of a team effort and go out of your way to praise them when things go well for them. Nothing like a bit of positive attention to bring anyone, man or woman, on board!
A few years ago I was a guest on the Colbert Report, talking about our last book Womenomics. The book looked in part at juggling children and jobs. Half way through the interview, in his inimitable way, Stephen suddenly said to me and “So you’re a working Mom, now chose. You’re on the edge of the cliff, and something has to go kids or career – which is it going to be,” he grilled, “kids or career, chose fast.”
Now, it was a comedy show, so, after I’d swallowed my befuddlement, I blurted out, “Well I’ve got four kids but only one career, so…” Stephen looked at me with that well honed mock horror of his and replied, “Wow, you just got the worst Mom of the year award, actually the worst Mom ever.”
Ironically my parenting skills are one of the things in my life that I feel pretty confident about. Not that I’ve done everything perfectly, there are certainly things I’d like a redo on (dumping my 8 year old’s entire dinner in the trash recently because she refused to finish her vegetables, was particularly immature, don’t you think?) But, in twenty years of parenting there are things I’ve learned – partly through trial and error and partly through researching confidence, which might make useful lessons.
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Q: Can you tell me what the confidence gene is? I did genetic testing a month ago at 23andme.com, but would love to know the SNP #.
A: There isn’t one confidence gene but neuroscientists are starting to isolate a group of genes that affect confidence and, on the flip side, anxiety. We tested three different genes that control serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin levels in our bodies. Your genetic predisposition to confidence depends on what variant you have of the genes. On two of those (the serotonin transporter gene and the COMT gene that regulates dopamine levels) Claire and I both have variants that wouldn’t naturally make up confident. We did have better luck with the gene that regulates oxytocin – also known as the cuddle hormone, by the way!
Q: As a “high confidence” woman (both according to my own personal assessment and your Confidence Quiz), I’m curious as to what your research says about the positives and negatives of being a high confidence women in the business world, and how that confidence affects one’s relationships both with men and with other women in the workplace?
I work in an administrative/management role in a very small office, and I’ve found that sometimes men are taken aback by my confidence and aren’t sure how to react. I recall one conversation with my boss and supervisor where I told them in an enthusiastic and confident (but not forceful) manner that I thought I had “conquered” the main challenges of my job position and would love to take on a bigger project. They reacted as if they had been physically jolted – as if they viewed the word “conquered” as too “violent” to come from a “nice,” friendly, hard working, petite woman. Would they have reacted differently if I were a man using that word? I love a good challenge, whether intellectual or physical, and I love conquering challenges or finding solutions to problems. Is that seen as an anti-feminine trait in the business world?
A: Being high confidence is great. We wish we were! But you are getting at something very interesting and complex, which is how should confident women conduct themselves in the work place. We know from several studies that women who act just like men professionally get penalised – they are seen as unfeminine and unlikeable. And, by the way, that is the reaction of women as well as men. So the art of confidence is how to be confident, how to believe in your abilities and take step up to your full capability, while not behaving like, well, a bit of a jerk. You don’t have to talk loudest and longest, always jump in first, be aggressive. Women are great conciliators, we’re good at listening and bring other people along – keep those qualities but still make your voice heard. As Christine Lagarde, the first female head of the International Monetary Fund, told us, it’s about being authentic.
We wonder if Hillary Clinton has been secretly reading The Confidence Code! At an event at the Clinton Foundation on Thursday the now grandmother-to-be and possibly Presidential candidate-to-be, said women are getting held back because we are trying to be too perfect. She is right.
“Too many young women get stopped by the perfectionist gene. You think you have to be perfect instead of good enough,” Clinton said. “And believe me, there are so many young woman that artificially stop themselves from progressing because they’re not perfect. And I have rarely met a young man who doesn’t think he is already, if not perfect, darn close to it. So why do we impose these types of burdens on ourselves?”
Mrs Clinton is getting at one of the biggest drivers of the confidence gap between men and women. This is why, according to research at Hewlett Packard, women apply for promotions if they have 100% of the job’s requirements, whereas men are happy to go for that step up if they have only 60% of the skills required. They just assume they can learn the other 40% on the job.
Women are more prone to perfectionism than men and it kills our confidence. As professionals, as mothers, as students, even in our yoga class, we want to get everything perfectly right. But think about it for a moment, perfect is an impossible standard, you can never get there, and if you keep trying you will never be fully confident.
Thank you Mrs Clinton for pointing this out.