Written by Kate Billing, Co-founder & Thought Leader, Blacksmith
When women hesitate to take opportunities or add their perspectives or ideas because of self-doubt, we hold ourselves back, not just in that moment but in all the ones that follow.
In my experience of working with leaders over the last 10 years one thing stands out regardless of the country, industry, size of organisation and years of experience in their specialism or leadership role – women are, in general, burdened with a weight of self doubt that saps their confidence to perform and be happy, compared with men. And this lack of confidence isn’t solely limited to their performance and capacity in their careers, it extends to their perception of their ability and character as a parent, partner, friend, child and human.
A growing body of evidence shows just how devastating this lack of confidence can be. Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. The good news is that with work, confidence can be developed. Which means that the confidence gap, in turn, can be closed. The shortage of female confidence is increasingly well quantified and well documented. In 2011, the UK Institute of Leadership & Management surveyed its members about how confident they felt in their professions. Half the female respondents reported self-doubt about their job performance and careers, compared with fewer than a third of male respondents.
An earlier comprehensive 2003 study by psychologists David Dunning (Cornell) and Joyce Ehrlinger (Washington State University) focussed specifically on women, and the impact of women’s preconceived ideas and beliefs about their ability on their confidence. They gave male and female universtity students a quiz on scientific reasoning. Before the quiz, the students rated their own scientific skills. The researchers wanted to see whether an individual’s general perception of Am I good in science? shapes their impression of something that should be separate: Did I get this question right? The women in the study rated themselves more negatively than the men did on scientific ability: on a scale of 1 to 10, the women gave themselves a 6.5 on average, and the men gave themselves a 7.6. When it came to assessing how well they answered the questions, the women thought they got 5.8 out of 10 questions right; men, 7.1. And how did they actually perform? Their average was almost the same – women got 7.5 out of 10 right and men 7.9.
To show the real-world impact of self-perception, the students were then invited – having no knowledge of how they’d performed – to participate in a science competition for prizes. The women were much more likely to turn down the opportunity: only 49 percent of them signed up for the competition, compared with 71 percent of the men. Ehrlinger and Dunning found that because the women were less confident in general in their abilities, that led them not to want to pursue future opportunities.
Over the past year I have been working with groups of women in an effort to begin to close the confidence gap. My 1-day workshop ‘Tune In – Unlocking the Power of Self-talk’ is designed to support women to change the conversation they’re having with themselves about their capability, character, identity and potential.
Without fail, when we start exploring (1) the content of their self talk and (2) the identity that’s the embodiment of that doubting voice, the same realisations occur – how damaging their self talk is to their confidence, performance and happiness; how long its been going on, AND that the power to do something about it sits with no-one but themselves.
Closing the confidence gap takes energy, attention and effort over time. There is no quick fix but we CAN do something about it. By tuning in to the self doubting voice inside our own minds, listening with compassion and learning to talk back with a self-coaching voice, we can begin to change the conversation between our own ears. By listening carefully to the women around us, inviting them to inspect their beliefs about themselves, and supporting a shift in perspective through radical candour and humble inquiry, we can help others.
[With gratitude for the work of Kitty Kay and Claire Shipman as published in The Atlantic from which portions of this piece are drawn]