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The Confidence Gap on Campus: Why College Women Need to Lean In

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Lean In, the new book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, urges women to own their ambition as a pathway to leadership -- and has inspired a vigorous backlash. Sandberg argues that women sabotage their potential by holding themselves back; her critics say she blames women for the sins of society. The leadership pipeline, they say, is blocked by an inflexible workplace and caregiving demands that disproportionately fall to women.

Yet on college campuses, where the vast majority of undergraduate women are not primary caregivers, men still outnumber women in leadership positions. Structural barriers do not entirely explain the leadership deficit.

Undergraduate women experience a confidence gap that prevents them from seeking the highest levels of authority. These are the women we work with, and we believe they should heed Sandberg's call to lean in.

On the 38 campuses that run Elect Her, a program that trains women to run for student government, women make up an average of 55 percent of the student body but occupy only 35 percent of executive positions in student government.

In a 2011 Princeton University study of its undergraduates, researchers discovered a host of psychological barriers curbing women's campus participation and potential. Although Princeton women were enthusiastically engaged in extracurricular and academic work, they chose jobs in organizations that kept them squarely out of the spotlight. They also made self-deprecating remarks, undersold themselves, spoke up less in class and were unlikely to put themselves up for awards or fellowships without special encouragement.

The women also reported juggling ruthless cultural expectations of how women should look and act. "[We] are supposed to be smart, involved in many different activities, and also pretty, sexy, thin, nice, and friendly," as one woman said. "Women are expected to be poised, witty, and smart," said another, "but not so witty or smart as to be threatening to men." Similar comments surfaced in a 2003 Duke University survey, which found that women felt pressure to be "effortlessly perfect" and avoided speaking up in large classes unless they had the right answer. And Stanford University sociologist Shelley Correll found that young women assessed their abilities lower than equally accomplished young men did at tasks in which men stereotypically excel.

This impossible pressure sandbags prospective female leaders who feel they must be both flawless and inoffensive. It is the product of a culture that has still not fundamentally questioned the rules of femininity but has instead tacked equality and its bold expectations onto it.

As Sandberg discusses, New York University psychologist Madeline Heilman found that women in conventionally male occupations were viewed as less competent by both female and male students. When women were clearly competent in these "male" occupations, they were considered less likable.

We regularly meet undergraduate women whose resumes sparkle with academic awards and impressive internships, but fear applying for a job they may not get or worry about speaking up in class and being judged as unintelligent. These women are inveterate worker bees, spending hours in the library or on behalf of a student organization, but they worry about telling others what to do or seeming "bossy." They begin classroom remarks with phrases like, "I'm not sure if this is right, but" or make statements sound like questions. They may know they are talented, but they fear owning it for fear of being called "conceited."

Speaking out, taking risks and being willing to rock the boat is what distinguishes campus leadership, and more young men seem comfortable doing it than women. In an information economy, a woman's skills will not be enough; her inner resume -- the personal authority and confidence to advocate for herself -- are essential. There is a difference between knowing you are talented and saying so in a job interview, between having an opinion and finding the courage to share it. Every door may have been opened to young women, but many still lack the confidence to stride through.

This crisis of confidence in the face of unrelenting -- and unfair -- pressure is what Sandberg is shining a light on. Yet, she is being criticized for blaming women, when she is in fact indicting a culture that forces women to second-guess their own strengths.

So what is it that college women need?

To answer this question, we need to listen to undergraduate women themselves. From the thousands of women we reach at AAUW every year, the message is clear: Provide us the skills, supports and mentoring to build confidence to take risks and test our leadership on campus. College women want to be aware of and prepared for the barriers both on campus and as they enter the workplace.

Kathleen Hurley, candidate for student government president at University of Cincinnati and Elect Her participant, admits, "I think we're all afraid that we won't be liked, but I also felt this crazy pressure to make the right choices to succeed." She credits leaning on her older classmates as role models and mentors with her leadership confidence. Hurley's recognition of the value of role models, mentors, and sponsors points to a key aspect of Sandberg's book, online community and circles. Sandberg is seeking to create space in which women of every age can share their doubts and dreams. Hearing about a role model's own crises of confidence can inspire many women, like Hurley, to work past her own. College women today will truly "lean in" when they know they are not alone in facing the barriers to leadership and learn how to advocate for themselves and others to get their voices at the decision-making table.