Overcoming the Confidence Gender Gap

“For many women, confidence has to be looked at as a skill we need to acquire. It’s not some God-given gift, or something that only men have.”

Claire Shipman is the senior national correspondent for the ABC program Good Morning America and co-author of two books with fellow journalist Katty Kay, the lead News Presenter for BBC World News America. Their books, Womenomics and The Confidence Code, deal with redefining success for working women. Claire recently talked with Susan David, Harvard psychologist and author of the new book Emotional Agility, about the ways we misunderstand confidence, how to raise confident girls, and why we need to reimagine what strong leadership can look like.

Susan: How would you define confidence? I’m curious to see how you think about confidence and whether that’s evolved since writing [The Confidence Code].

Claire: I think a lot about it. I didn’t realize my own lack of confidence until I wrote this book. I knew I had a lot of faults, but I would not have thought confidence was among them, because I had achieved things, I had reached a certain point in my life where I had career success. Confidence, and a lack of it, is not always the clichéd version of what you think. I would have imagined a person without confidence as somebody who’s constantly quiet, afraid to raise their hand. Likewise, the Mad Men version of confidence would be speaking first and walking through the door with this certain stride and swagger.

Here’s what I found, from a professor at Ohio State University: “Confidence is what turns our thoughts into action.” If you’re not taking action, i.e., risk, you’re not exhibiting confidence. More importantly, you’re not creating more, because there’s this virtuous circle component to the creation of confidence. It involves risk and failure and resilience and recovery and then ultimately mastery.

I’m a perfectionist, an obsessive thinker, and I started to realize how much that has held me back and how risk averse I have been. I will sometimes take big risks, but on a daily basis I just try to navigate and steer. I want to get everything right and I spend too much time thinking. What I try to do now is ask myself, “Where am I acting? Where am I taking a risk and moving on?”

Susan: Do you think that one element of confidence is also being confident to not take action?

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Claire: It depends on your personality. Of course there are times when it requires a lot of confidence not to act—if you’re being pressured into it. For example, I spent years fighting against my own natural style as a journalist, which is more contemplative, a little friendlier. I like to draw people out. When I was covering the White House, I had eight million different male executives telling me how to conduct interviews, “Ask this question. Do this. Do that.” I went along with it for about 10 years, and then I realized, “You know what? My style is more effective.” For a lot of men, especially, who are prone to taking risks, it could take confidence to weigh things and think.

I make a joke when I give speeches: for women, I tell them the shorthand recipe is, “Do more, think less,” and everybody in the room laughs. Then I say, “For the men in the room, it’s the opposite. Act less and think more.”

Susan: There’s certain confidence in being able to tolerate a space.

Claire: Right. Ultimately, you build confidence, and exhibit it, by being able to be a little bit outside of your comfort zone. If you think about it like that, whatever feels slightly uncomfortable to you is what you’ll need confidence for and what will help you build more of it.

“A certain amount of overconfidence is not only charismatic but something people look for in leaders right now. In many ways, in terms of success, confidence trumps competence.”

Susan: What about overconfidence?

Claire: This recent election had a tailor-made classic exhibition of male overconfidence. Hillary Clinton has talked in great depth about the road to building confidence, how hard it was, deciding to first run for senate and building this thick skin and resilience. I think she exhibits a lot of confidence now, but there’s something quite overconfident about Donald Trump, and it’s appealing to a lot of people. There’s this interesting research that Cameron Anderson at Berkeley is doing about the fact that a certain amount of overconfidence is not only charismatic but something people look for in leaders right now. In many ways, in terms of success, confidence trumps competence, which is a frightening thought for a lot of people.

It helped us to realize that for many women, confidence has to be looked at as a skill we need to acquire. It’s not some God-given gift, or something that only men have. They often have it more easily than women do, but it’s something we can acquire, and we need to use and wield it more like a tool.

Susan: Relating to this election, it’s interesting—I think now more than ever, women are getting very clear signals from various environments about their value, about their decision-making capability. How do you navigate that in your own life, and how do you navigate that in your thinking with women in general?

Claire: What we found when we started looking at women and confidence is that some of it is genetic. And some of it has to do with our perfectionism—in some ways we’re raised to be perfect. Also, there’s a huge societal piece that has to do with the fact that the playing field isn’t level, all of the work on stereotype threat.

Obviously, when you’re in the minority, and you’re not like everybody else or the people you aspire to be, you feel less confident, and you operate less well. One of the paradoxes right now is that everybody, especially in the corporate world, understands that the more women you have running a company, the better [the company] works, the more money it makes. There’s a real desire to have diversity in leadership. Everybody gets that, but even the most ardent CEOs and top managers don’t understand that what that means is that women lead differently.

They don’t quite understand that we’re not looking for women who act exactly the way the men do, because that’s not what women are bringing. This definition of leadership needs to change, and it’s really subtle: what a leader looks like, what a leader feels like. People tell us this over and over again. There’ll be meeting after meeting where it’s like, “Well, she’s almost that executive vice president or CEO, but there’s something not quite there,” and that something is just a different leadership style. They’re looking for somebody who sounds and operates in a male capacity, and we need to start valuing active listening instead of argument, less hierarchical leadership and operational style. It’s just not something that’s happening. You don’t hear people saying, “Wow, I love the way Sally listened and wrapped everything up.” You say, “I love the way he took charge at the meeting.”

Susan: The stereotype of leadership is a male-described stereotype.

Claire: Yes, but what the data shows about the way successful companies run is that it’s a mix of male and female leadership skills. That’s one of the biggest problems. When you think about what the environment is telling us, it’s frustrating, it’s a real mixed message. I’ve seen some things written about this election, “Well, this is classic. Donald Trump won, but he didn’t do any of the hard work. He just managed to talk and sound confident. Whereas Hillary Clinton was the good girl. She did all the hard work for years, and once again…” I feel like that metaphor is somewhat bad, because obviously there were problems with her candidacy that go well beyond the fact that she’s a woman. But we can’t ignore the signals and what it means for our lives or our children. My daughter is 11. A lot of her classmates were teary, they said, “We thought a woman would finally be able to be president,” and we can’t underestimate the disappointment and this signal that that sent.

Susan: Which is so real.

“I used to feel so embarrassed by how much we still had to do for women, and I would try to hide the truth from my daughter. Now I realize I need to talk about it.”

Claire: It is real. We older people can see, at least, a trajectory, but for young kids, it’s important to talk about all of this, and that it’s not black and white. I used to feel so embarrassed by how much we still had to do for women, and I would try to hide the truth from my daughter. You know those place mats we have where’s all the faces of the presidents?

Susan: Yes.

Claire: At a certain age, I started to hide those because I thought, “How do I explain to her there’s no women on it?” Now I realize I need to talk about it. I think it’s better for girls to understand that there’s more work left to do, the history of where we’ve come, and help them to become engaged in change if that’s what they are interested in, as opposed to trying to whitewash and hide.

Susan: When you think about confidence, particularly in the context of discrimination and gender bias, how does that impact the way you raise your daughter, how you have difficult conversations with your daughter?

Claire: It’s helped with raising my children in general because I’ve realized I need to be much less of a helicopter parent. Hard situations are good for them, and I need to help them embrace those, and build resilience. It’s hard for me. Who wants to see their kids suffer and have disappointments and failures? But when I see my son standing there striking out, time after time, instead of thinking, “What am I going to do? How many coaches can I hire?” I now realize ultimately this is going to be good for him.

It calms me down, and therefore I’m able to be a better mother. My daughter is a natural rebel. She doesn’t want to wear dresses. She doesn’t really care about that stuff, and I’ve been able to embrace that more easily. It has helped to question, “Why do I think my daughter needs to be pleasing people? Why am I expecting her to be a little nicer to everybody than my son is?”

Very recently, she was mad that girls don’t go through football rotation at our school. She loves football. I’ve helped her to talk to the athletic director, campaign for it. She didn’t get the perfect outcome, but I told her, “Look, here’s what you accomplished. It’s tough out there, and you’re going to have to keep arguing for other girls.” It’s great for them to embrace challenge.

“It’s so hard for parents to sit with their kids’ emotions. Really, you learn so much about yourself as a person when you’re a parent because you realize, ‘Maybe this isn’t my daughter’s issue. Maybe this is my issue.’”

Susan: We often try to help our children to feel better, especially when we live in a society that insists, “Think positive. Be positive.” It leads us to discount negative emotions. “Don’t be sad. I know you feel anxious, but do away with your anxiety,” and we really need to help our children to recognize that emotions aren’t to be feared. The only way we learn that is by navigating them, feeling them, and it’s in that that we develop resilience. A hallmark of resilience is anti-fragility, being able to experience the whole range of emotions that come at us.

Claire: It’s so hard for parents to sit with their kids’ emotions. Really, you learn so much about yourself as a person when you’re a parent because you realize, “Maybe this isn’t my daughter’s issue. Maybe this is my issue.”

Susan: At sitting with my discomfort.

“Ultimately, it comes down to increasing our appetite as women for risk taking and doing things that make us uncomfortable.”

Claire: I’ve also thought a lot about encouraging risk-taking in general, and is that something that we’re doing enough of for women and girls? Because as we step back and look at this election, whether you’re happy or unhappy with the result, there are a lot of women and girls wondering, “Well, what’s next? Who’s the next female candidate?”

The fact is, there are far fewer women who are interested in running for office than men. There’s a lot of data that shows women tend to be more effective when elected. They tend to be more willing to cross the aisle. They stick to their campaign promises. They just get more done. But running for office, for women, is like the confidence crucible, because it is literally all about you. People are voting on you. You can’t hide behind anything else. It’s not about my company, the team, it’s just, “Vote me.”

You see it in the national numbers of women willing to run for office, but it trickles all the way down to where my children go to school. There’s been a lot of frustration that girls aren’t running in the same numbers for [school government]. When they do run, they’re not elected in the same numbers. Is it because the girls tend to vote for the boys? Are girls not smart enough about the way they sell their candidacy in high school? Ultimately, it comes down to increasing our appetite as women for risk taking and doing things that make us uncomfortable.

How do we start that process? Is puberty early enough? Is it something we need to be thinking about in preschool? I really believe that women are especially suited for public service—there’s a nexus there with our values. We’re more willing to trade time for money. We’re more willing to trade a better mission for money. Getting into the real positions of power in public service requires us to leap, and I want to figure out how we encourage that earlier.

Susan: Some of that is a nexus of both of our work. Yours, about confidence and taking risks, and mine about helping people to tolerate discomfort. Because it’s the inability or the difficulty in tolerating discomfort that ultimately stops people from taking risk. That starts even in the conversations that we have with a two or three year-old child where the child comes home from school and says, “No one will play with me.” What do we do? We say, “Don’t worry, I’ll bake cupcakes with you.”

Claire: I’ll get somebody to play with you.

“From a very early age, we are cultivating a bias towards comfort and positivity rather than its opposite, which is being able to be with discomfort and still take action in the direction of your values.”

Susan: I’ll do it. We’ll do it. From a very early age, we are cultivating a bias towards comfort and positivity rather than its opposite, which is being able to be with discomfort and still take action in the direction of your values. This is a conversation that I often have with my son. My son will say, “I’m scared of something,” and what I’ve tried to do is not tell him, “Don’t be scared.” Instead, what I say is, “How can you notice your fear and still choose to do it?” Which is very different. We live in this context of placating uncomfortable emotions all the time, and I suspect that it’s more so for females.

Claire: Do you see in your research the impact of social media? It’s so much easier to distract ourselves from discomfort.

Susan: It’s so much easier to distract ourselves, and also there’s toxicity in social comparison, and we are subject to social contagion. When we see other people upset at something, we get upset. That gets supported and extended by social media.

There’s also this incredibly interesting counterfoil. Young girls who have this unconscious bias of, “I’m just not cut out for science,” or, “I’m just not cut out for this job”—we grow up with these biases, and even someone who puts themselves in uncomfortable positions, say as a first generation college girl doing a degree in science…When that person has their first failure, they’re more likely to drop out of college.

There’s this body of research looking at when women have done a brief exercise of spending a couple of minutes writing about why they are in college to begin with, what their values are—that that protects them from the ravages of social comparison as well as social biases that get activated in times of trouble.

Claire: One therapist I was talking to for our research was saying one of the best tools you can give to preteens to help get them through it is to have them focus less on themselves and more on, “What am I supposed to be doing in life?”

“What can I be doing to help the world?” When you start to make that switch, their confidence starts to increase almost immediately. How do you reach people and start to get them to use those healthy mental habits early? I’m fascinated by the emotional component of education.

Susan: In terms of compliance versus risk-taking?

“Young people today are so full of stress. Everything has to be checked off. They have to get everything right. It’s ridiculous, and girls internalize it all.”

Claire: Yes, and stopping this drive towards perfectionism among girls and this achievement to get into college, to reach this level. Young people today are so full of stress. Everything has to be checked off. They have to get everything right. It’s ridiculous, and girls internalize it all, and I think teachers encourage this because they race for grades.

Susan: What’s your sense of the impact of this compliance-based educational system, which is all on grades? How do you feel that that fundamentally impacts girls going into the world?

Claire: I think they’re miseducated for the world. Essentially, girls are educated for everything that doesn’t exist in the real world. Even if you’re going to go into academia, you’re not learning the right lessons in K-12, and even in college. What we’re teaching girls is “be a people pleaser, get 100% on every test, get all As.” If you spend 8,000 hours researching your thesis and make it all perfect you’re going to be a teacher’s pet, and if you take 100 classes you can get the best SAT score. Girls are really good at that. Those are not valuable skills in the real world.

Susan: Do you feel it’s directed at girls, or do you feel that it is education per se?

Claire: Of course. Girls just are able to excel at that a little bit better than boys, right?

Susan: Yes.

Claire: If you look at all of the articles, people are more worried about boys in education than girls today. Boys lag behind in terms of all of that achievement. Boys, from an early age, are taking more risks and building resilience because they more naturally screw up. They’re idiotic from a very early age, but it’s fantastic.

They learn to fight on the playground and make people mad and fail tests. They realize, yeah, it wasn’t great, but it didn’t matter that much, so they don’t internalize, “I better please everybody” or “I’m valuable because I’m getting 100 on everything.” That doesn’t become part of their narrative.

I see it with my son and daughter. My son is constantly like, “I’ve done enough. I have studied enough.” And I think that’s what the real world is about. It’s about trying new things and a willingness to just say, “I can do it” even if you can’t. We don’t teach girls that.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.