The Real Cost Of Low Confidence

10/27/2011 11:46 am ET | Updated Dec 26, 2011
  • Barbara & Shannon Kelley Speakers; Coauthors, "Undecided: How To Ditch The Endless Quest For Perfect and Find The Career--and Life--That's Right For You"

Out here in Silicon Valley, you can't cross the street without bumping into an engineer. And what you find is that three our of four of them are men. As Shankar Vedantam once reported in Slate:

The gender distribution of engineers at top Silicon Valley companies is similar to the gender distribution of the audience at your average strip club.

Creepy, but not surprising. According to stats out of the U.S. Department of Labor, women make up only one quarter of the workforce when it comes to jobs related to computers or math. Some folks call it the leaky pipeline: Women drop out of math and engineering programs before they ever hit the job market. I should know. I started college as a math major. By sophomore year, I bailed.

One theory out there suggests that women opt out because of the perception that careers in engineering, by their very nature, are not compatible with future mommy-hood.

Another one, most odiously put forth by erstwhile Harvard president Lawrence Summers, former head of President Obama's National Economic Council, is that women, by nature, just don't have the mental chops for science and math. Ugh, right?

Turns out, neither of the above are true. According to a new study published in the American Sociological Review, one of the crucial reasons women opt out of careers in engineering before they've ever opted in is confidence. Or, more precisely, lack of same. It's not that these women can't make the grade, the study found. It's that, when it comes to venturing out into the workplace, they don't think they'll fit.

You don't have to be an engineer (and odds are pretty good that you're not) -- or ever have had dreams of being one -- for the study's findings to resonate.

The researchers surveyed 288 students who entered engineering programs in 2003 at MIT, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, and Smith College. They found that the women students took the same classes, took the same tests and earned the same -- or higher -- grades as the male students. And yet, they ended up feeling less confident in their abilities -- or in the idea that a career in engineering was right for them.

One thing that's interesting to note is that the prospect of parenthood had nothing to do with it, at least for the women. "We find that women's desires to have a family do not influence whether they continue in an engineering major or plan to go into the engineering workforce," said the study's lead author Erin Cech, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University's Clayman Institute for Gender Research. In fact, she told us, "The study found that men, rather than, women, were more likely to perceive that engineering was likely to interfere with raising a family."

That settles that. What undermines the female students' confidence, and persistence, Cech says, is what she calls micro-biases, or those subtle stereotypes about what men and women are naturally good at. "In engineering, for example, men are often thought to be "naturally" good at the "technical" aspects of engineering, where women are through to be "naturally" good at the "social" aspects of engineering, like teamwork and communication. If men engineering students are subtly thought to be more competent at engineering tasks than women, then men and women engineering students will be treated slightly differently by their peers and their professors." All of which snowballs in women, leading to a gradual erosion in confidence that they'll ever fit in.

This new study seems to be right in line with an older one on that we've riffed on before. That one suggested that women avoid math and science, not because they lack the aptitude, but because they don't feel welcome. Call it identity threat: women may avoid situations -- like math or engineering -- when they feel outnumbered. Researchers Mary Murphy, Claude Steele and James Gross found that when women math, science and engineering undergrads simply watched a video that pitched a fictional conference where men outnumbered women, the women showed the physical signs of threat -- faster heart rates and sweating -- and reported a lower sense of belonging, and less desire to participate in the conference at all. The researchers also found that the women who watched the gender unbalanced video were more vigilant of their surroundings overall.

Point being, it's the threat, as much as the reality, that often keeps us out of the game. And not just when it comes to science or math.

A recent Harvard Business Review post on the new study noted that confidence was likewise one of the issues that kept women out of the corporate suites. As writers Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath, and Mary Davis Holt -- nationally recognized experts on women's leadership -- wrote:

Having combed through more than a thousand 360-degree performance assessments conducted in recent years, we've found, by a wide margin, that the primary criticism men have about their female colleagues is that the women they work with seem to exhibit low self-confidence.

The writers cite a 2011 study out of Europe's Institute of Leadership and Management that quantifies the gender confidence gap (half of women managers admitted to self-doubt about their performance and career, for example, versus less than a third of men) and suggest that this lack of confidence leads to too much modesty; the inability to make the big ask; avoiding attention; and remaining silent, especially at business meetings.


All of this confidence gap comes at a cost. (Seventy-seven cents on the dollar, remember?) That which keeps us out of the labs and out of the boardrooms, often keeps us out of the money, right? But back to Erin Cech and her would-be engineers.

"The root of the problem are biases that are deeply embedded in people's cultural beliefs about of gender and the nature of the work in science and engineering professions," she told us. "The ultimate solution would be to change those beliefs. Such cultural change is maddeningly difficult and slow. So, perhaps the next best thing is to actually talk about the way that science and engineering fields are gendered within engineering and science classrooms. Such talk is considered "political" and thus "irrelevant" in most science and engineering classrooms, and so is never discussed. But, what could be more relevant than the retention of students within those very professions?"

Or, for that matter, any others. (Oh, for the record: It wasn't lack of confidence that prompted me to change my major. It was calculus.)