Do Women Need to Get More Confident?

April 27, 2014

By Lea Z. Singh |

Why are men so good at their own game? Women have donned power suits and crashed through the gates of professional occupations in droves, armed with smarts and determination. We have outperformed men in academic terms: we get better marks in school, and now there are more of us at universities.

But men are not phased. They continue to believe in their own invincibility, and even more maddening, they still have the last laugh as they rise to the top like bubbles (of hot air) in the career world while most women watch with bewilderment.

This month, the female fascination with the real-world success of men continues on the pages of The Atlantic, where a new article by two women journalists delves into the "confidence gap" between men and women and dissects it in great detail from all angles. 

It's something I have often noticed: on average, men seem more confident than women. My female brain would label it overconfidence, even arrogance. It's not uncommon to see a man talk with university-professor authority about matters they actually know little of. Women are not exempt from pontificating, but usually we have the opposite problem: holding back from speaking up even when we know what we are talking about.

Men aren't actually better; they just think they are (you would never guess that in fact, "investments run by female hedge-fund managers outperform those run by male managers."). While it may not be justified, their self-perceived competence does lead men to better workplace outcomes: "Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence".

Nature made us differently

What is it that makes men so confident? According to the article, there are both biological and 'environmental' explanations. Isn't it taboo to speak about the biological differences? Back in 2005, Harvard President Lawrence Summers was forced to resign because he implied in a lunchtime lecture that there might be some biological differences between men and women which explain why there are more men in top scientific and engineering positions.

And yet, here we are, we have to admit that men have 10 times more testosterone than women. Imagine someone who drinks 10 cups of coffee while you only have one (or none). Think it might cause some differences between you? 

Testosterone "helps to fuel what often looks like classic male confidence". It "encourages a focus on winning and demonstrating power", and it increases one's appetite for risk-taking. What's more, there's a "winner effect" to testosterone: winning increases the testosterone still more! Research on hedge fund traders has confirmed that those whose trades paid off ended the day with significantly more testosterone than when they started (one trader saw a 74% increase). 

And then there is estrogen. That hormone makes women, in essence, more concerned with getting along and seeking to bond and connect while avoiding conflict and risk taking. There is also the fact that women are more emotional than men, and that our brains are different. New research shows that women more easily trigger the "fear centers" of their brains, forming strong emotional memories of negative events (as many have noticed in relationships, "women are more apt to ruminate over what’s gone wrong in the past"). What's more, women are worrywarts by nature: the part of the brain which lets us "recognize errors and weigh options" is actually larger in women.

So there you have it. The male hedge fund managers leave work on a testosterone high, even more assured of their own invincibility and ready to play a round of rugby, while the female hedge fund managers are probably crawling home exhausted while re-playing their mistakes and worrying about their decisions. That's a huuuuuge difference between men and women. 

Oh, and one more major contrast: Women are moms! While the male hedge fund managers are coming home with the happy knowledge that their wife or nanny cared for their children all day while they were out providing for their family, the female hedge fund managers are probably running themselves ragged with the classic guilt of the torn working mother. Doesn't do wonders for one's confidence, that.

Women may have donned the scuba gear and jumped into the waters of the professional workforce, but men are like the seals doing cartwheels all around us. We are more graceful in our movements, we double check our facts and make sure we hear every perspective, we don't interrupt and we are well prepared for our meetings. But despite their clumsy appearance, their lecturing and forcefulness, their rough edges and sometimes lack of manners, nature has still better equipped men to succeed at their own game.

We raise boys differently

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, the authors of the Atlantic article, also suggest that there are 'nurture' factors for why men don't seem nearly as phased by setbacks as women often are. They discuss how from an early age, boys are essentially toughened-up through failures and admonition in school and rough-housing between friends, as well as through team sports. They learn to take failure in stride and to let criticism slide off their backs. 

Girls, on the other hand, are often exemplary in a school setting (quiet, doing as they were told). They reap praise and rewards for being the perfect students. Unfortunately, real life is very different from the school setting. Girls get addicted to the praise of being "good girls" and never develop a thick skin or the courage to go out on a limb, which prevents real-life success later on.

The 'nurture' aspect of this equation also makes sense to me, and it is an eye-opener. In some ways this discovery is a surprise victory for the boys, who seem to languish in our present school system which favours girls. Turns out that while the girls get all the glory, the high marks and the chip on their shoulders, the boys are actually getting the school of life. All those admonitions and failures in the school setting teach boys to overcome real-life failures and to keep ploughing on and believing in themselves no matter what. Conversely, when the school bell rings for the last time, the girls don't make it far past the gate. 

How can we help girls to have more confidence? 

The article paints a rather woeful picture of nature and nurture conspiring to keep girls lacking in the secret ingredient of great career success, which men so unfairly possess without any effort. It seems discouraging, but if there is any hope to be found for increasing female confidence, it is clearly along the lines of changing the way in which we bring up girls, since there's not much hope of changing biology. 

We can roughhouse and criticize, and expose girls to more failure early on. Would it have the same effects as for the boys? Not sure about that. It seems to me that girls really are just more sensitive than boys, and tend to take negative feedback more to heart. To treat girls like boys might just leave them scarred for life.

One good idea is to put girls in team sports, because according to the article, participation in team sports is another very important way that boys acquire self-confidence for life. "Learning to own victory and survive defeat in sports is apparently good training for owning triumphs and surviving setbacks at work." Turns out there's a direct link between playing sports in high school and earning a higher salary as an adult.

But many girls already participate in team sports. Why aren't they getting the same benefits as boys? The trouble is, as generations of tomboys will tell us, that once puberty hits, nature takes the driver's seat. All that estrogen, all those emotions fizzing through the female brain like a newly-opened Coke can - worlds apart from the testosterone explosion that the boys are experiencing.

The result is that "girls are still six times as likely as boys to drop off sports teams," and most girls apparently drop off during adolescence. Not surprising, since girls have a whole bunch of other self-deprecating stuff to focus on at that age, namely body image in a world consumed with female appearance and sexuality. It's hard for girls to stay self-confident as they compare themselves with the unclad airbrushed models that are everywhere, Boys don't have that, and that is a major difference.

How to get girls self-confident in a culture that objectifies them?

That's a question we really need to answer. Boys are growing up in a normal world, where they are treated as persons and not hypersexualized and objectified. They experience setbacks and difficulties in school, but they are still valued for their accomplishments when they do succeed. 

Boys don't get the most confidence-killing messages of all, that they are only as valuable as their bodies are sexually attractive. In that sense, girls have a very different encounter with life, and their environment is far more hostile. In adolescence, boys are out there playing sports while most girls retreat to the bathroom, where they stare endlessly at their reflection, trying on makeup and hairdos. 

Get the girls out of that bathroom, and you are well on the way to giving them their self-confidence back. To start young, cut out the princess stuff. That cute Disney princess obsession is already priming them for focus on their bodies and appearance.

Fake it until we make it?

It turns out that we can make our brains more male with something called plasticity. Research indicates that as we change our thoughts and behaviour, our brains adjust by changing too. So the authors of the article suggest that women need to act with confidence, even if they don't feel confident. The key is to take action rather than overthinking and holding back. Over time, we will find that our brains have adjusted and confidence has become more natural for us.

I'm not sure how realistic that solution really is. If anything, it will just get us into more of a tangled mess because we will be hard on ourselves for not being able to carry through such advice. While the brain adjusts, it seems to be a long-term thing that happens over the course of a lifetime. How long would we have to pretend in order to change our brains? It's hard on a continual basis to sustain this kind of fake behaviour, which goes against female nature.

Change the workplace

It's great to try to increase women's confidence, but in some ways I don't like the implicit premise of this article, which is that women are somehow deficient because we don't measure up to the male standard of confidence. This is the whole problem with feminism from the very beginning - the quest to turn women into men, as if being a woman is somehow not good enough.

So what if men are more confident by nature? It doesn't mean that there is a problem with us. Women do think differently - the brain science has proven it! On average we are more cautious, we worry more, we empathize more, we avoid conflict more, we are more quiet rather than outspoken. But, so what? We are women, and those traits are a great asset we hold - we are the natural counterbalance to male impulsiveness and aggression. They need us, even if they don't realize it!

The real problem is that the working world is still a man's world. It is built around his qualities and his schedule, and that sets him up for greatest success. Women struggle to hang on as we fight both our nature and our family obligations while climbing those workplace ladders. Men don't have to deal with pumping breast milk in bathroom stalls, and they don't spend much time thinking about our problems. It's much easier for them, in today's aggressive workplace, to plough ahead.

What we should be doing is changing the working world.  We need to create policies and systems that allow women (and mothers) to thrive. We need a lot more off-ramps and on-ramps, rather than a linear career profession. We need more flex time and less face-time. We need supportive environments and various opportunities for women to be included in decision making, to have a chance to voice their opinions and ideas in non-aggressive ways, and to allow their own qualities to shine in a positive way in the workplace. 

Embrace who we are

Despite the above, I have my doubts that things can actually change much for women in the working world. The workplace is basically a coed hockey game, and whenever women play together with men, they are bound to end up second most of the time. We just aren't aggressive or confrontational enough to win at that game. Men will often emerge as the leaders, and we will find ourselves playing a supporting role.

But you know what? I don't think we should try to change ourselves just to win. Maybe the best thing we can do is to embrace the fact that we are different, and allow our nature to blossom rather than fighting it and treating it like a problem. To me, that is real feminism - loving what women are like, and being okay with ourselves as we are.

And just maybe, we don't always need to put ourselves through the stresses of an aggressive workplace. Rather than trying to fit the mold, we can move on elsewhere, where our feminine qualities are more useful and appreciated. Certain professions are populated mostly by women for a reason. They usually allow us to thrive more, and they are well worth considering for young women looking at their options.

The most important job of all

And then of course, there is the fact that our children still need us in the most important role we can have. Rather than sending our children to daycare while we try to be men in the workplace, just maybe we could consider something a little crazy: how about taking on the time-honoured role of full-time mom?

Something tells me that this would solve a lot of the societal ills we are currently experiencing, such as the peer orientation and bullying that are so prevalent among our young people.

And you know what? Our qualities may be a setback in the workplace, but they are actually perfect for raising kids. I remember reading an article a while back, which discussed research showing that stay-at-home dads act differently than stay-at-home moms. The dads spent less time with their kids overall, and still ended up focusing more on their own stuff, doing less housework, less cooking, and so-on. In other words, they were home, but not being moms.

No one else can replace moms. We are perfect for the role of keeping the nest, and we have the patience, the listening skills, the empathy and open affection, and the selflessness that it takes to spread the wings of our little peas and enable them to fly.

Imagine that!

Photo: The Bees Knees Daily via photopin cc

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