Do Women Really Lack Confidence? Surveys Say, No!

10/12/2017 07:16 pm ET

He says: “I’m the best project manager in the company.”

She says: ”Project management is one of my top strengths.”

He focuses on the things he did well and feels great about his performance; she thinks of the things she might have done better and feels so-so about her performance.

He wants to go toe- to- toe and beat out everyone in everything; she wants to keep striving to beat her own best.

Who is more confident?

Chances are, you responded, “him.” That’s because confidence is primarily viewed in a “masculine” context; that is, self-promoting, amplifying ones’ capabilities, speaking about oneself in superlatives, chomping at the bit to compete against others, lacking internal self- doubt.

Study upon study points to confidence as women’s Achilles’ heel. It has become a common perception that women have a confidence gap. But is it really a question of women’s lack of confidence or the way in which confidence is defined?

The Confidence Confusion

In a number of articles addressing women’s supposed lack of confidence in various situations, it was uncovered that the issue wasn’t confidence at all. There were other factors that explained their behavior. According to one study, women who didn’t apply to jobs because they did not meet every one of the listed qualifications were not lacking confidence, they were simply carefully following what they saw as the rules for applicants.

Women’s perceived lack of confidence is also due to a narrow view of what confidence looks like. One common indicator of confidence is an ability to take risks, but studies showing that men have a greater propensity to take risks than women, define risk in financial and physical terms. Risk-takers, therefore, do such things as invest in a highly volatile stock, acquire financially troubled but potentially profitable companies and sky dive. Risk is framed in male-dominant ways.

But doesn’t taking risks also include standing up for what is right in the face of opposition or taking the ethical path despite pressure to stray? In these areas, women tend to shine.

Another common misperception about confidence conflates it with competitiveness. But confidence is not about competing with others. Women tend to compete, not against others, but against their own best, gathering others in their pursuit of that goal. Their drive to achieve is propelled by a desire to exceed expectations; it is a self-challenge. And self-challenges require confidence.

A Different Way to Look at Confidence

Research data show that the confidence that is most important to effective leadership isn’t internal self-confidence; it’s the confidence that others see. Effective leaders can have an internal voice of self-doubt but still be seen as confident effective leaders.

Our own research backs this up. We have found that 47% of executive women who have been assessed on the nine leadership characteristics of the Women's Leadership Blueprint (WLB) show confidence as a top strength. Confidence, on average, was the highest rated competency; with managers, peers and direct reports ratings averaging 4.1 on a five-point scale, where self-ratings average 3.8.

However, looking at the detail, we discovered that among the several items that measure confidence, there were some noticeable differences. “Steps up to the plate and takes the lead when called for by the situation” was the highest rated item in the WLB 57-item survey, with an average overall rating of 4.4 and average self-rating of 4.2. Executive women saw themselves as quite confident, as did other raters, when confidence was described this way.

Meanwhile, the item “has utter confidence in her own abilities” told a different story. The women rated themselves 3.3 on average, which was in the bottom 10 rated survey items; while scores by other raters of them averaged 4.0, which was in the top 15 rated items!

Some women said that they didn’t rate themselves as high on this item because they had some self-doubt. Their managers, peers and direct reports, however, didn’t pick up on these doubts.

Confident Women Are Collaborative

While women may lack certain behaviors traditionally associated with confidence such as competitiveness against peers, and posturing self-promotion. what they do possess is the ability to collaborate, and perhaps this is the secret sauce of confidence. It is in using the “power of we” that women’s confidence particularly stands out.

Executive women often exhibit their self- confidence by framing it as confidence in their team or organization. They speak of their accomplishments not as individual achievements but as successful team efforts, foregoing “I” for “we”. Women toot their own horn by also tooting it for others. Similarly, they share power. They have the chutzpah, the confidence, to distribute authority, empowering others to get the job done.

Who is confident? She is.

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