THE BLOG
04/30/2014 10:53 am ET | Updated Jun 30, 2014

Belonging: The Real Culprit in the Confidence Gap

Sam Edwards via Getty Images

A vital key is missing from all of the critical discussion about why the dearth of women in places of power persists. While issues of ambition and confidence surely play a part, if you want women (or any minority) to stay motivated in the face of adversity, the answer may be as simple as making them feel that they belong.

This most recent discussion around the issue seems to have begun with Sheryl Sandberg. I first heard her bandy about her "ambition gap" theory at the 2011 APEC Women and the Economy Summit.

I was watching her speak as part of a panel aimed broadly at helping companies understand why the inclusion of women was important. When Sheryl spoke, I almost fell out of my uncomfortable metal chair.

"How could she blame us for not having ambition?" I later asked one of the conference creators, still in shock at the term "ambition gap."

"Oh, she says that all the time. It's just to get attention, but it's getting boring," she replied.

Having recently reentered the workforce after years of swapping career ambition for familial go-getting, I found Sandberg's theory off-putting, but memorable. I went home and looked up the word "ambition," thinking maybe I was missing some subtlety to her phrase.

am·bi·tion noun 1. a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work. "her ambition was to become a model"
synonyms: aspiration, intention, goal, aim, objective, object, purpose, intent, plan, desire, wish, design, target, dream

That "her ambition was to become a model" is the example in Google's first definition of the word seems an apt metaphor for the plethora of issues that can be blamed for women's lack of ambition. I heard Kathy Najimy sum up some of these issues nicely in a speech she made at the Center for Community Solutions last week.

Women are expected to be a size zero, what is that? Zero is nothing. Women are force fed the notion that they are best when they are nothing. And Hollywood isn't special. It's just a concentrated version of what the rest of society does to women and girls. Keeps us off balance and out of control by constantly making us doubt ourselves. And as we succumb our lives pass us by. And I suggest that this is not an accident. I suggest that there has been created a standard and an unattainable quest that not only keeps women off the task of running their lives and perhaps running the world...

Since that APEC conference back in 2011, there have been more "gap" theories that I can count. I now realize that Sandberg's ability to get attention sparked a much needed public debate about women, as well as a book, Lean In, which has sold over a million copies.

The most recent gap theory is the "Confidence Gap," presented by Kitty Kay and Claire Shipman in their book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance---What Women Should Know. The authors pivot slightly from ambition, focusing on why a lack of confidence is holding women back.

Responses to this argument are plentiful, and many instead point to structural issues such as paid maternity leave and the wage gap. The confidence gap theory has also sparked some discussion of the dichotomy between confidence and likability. The data in Sandberg's Lean In showed that if women are too successful and confident, their likability declines, and they are seen as "bossy," or worse.

But what if the real gap is, instead, a belonging gap?

In a key study focused on how colleges and universities can retain and motivate students, social psychologist and assistant Stanford professor Dr. Gregory Walton found a sense of belonging to have lasting positive effects on minorities.

Walton's earlier studies demonstrated that a sense of social belonging can affect motivation and continued persistence, even on impossible tasks...Walton's research has had a particularly dramatic effect on students' achievement, especially for minority students and women in overwhelmingly male-dominated majors, who may suffer from the dreaded minority achievement gap...

...when psychological threat was removed from both laboratory and real-world settings, women and minorities performed better than men and non-minorities who had the same prior test scores and grades. The magnitude of this superior performance -- called the latent ability effect -- indexes the degree to which the prior measures underestimated the true ability of ethnic minorities and women. The size of the effect suggests that most of the gender gap on the SAT-Math test, for instance, and a significant portion of race gaps on the SAT are due to psychological threat....

Governments, businesses and women ought to take note of these findings. Governments with more women are more collaborative. Businesses with more women perform better. Even in the face of stereotypes and structural barriers there just may be one profound solution to our ambition, performance and confidence waning in situations where we don't feel like we fit in.

What if it is true? What if women can regain their ambition and confidence, and moreover, unlock their latent abilities, with a simple sense of belonging?