Women and Confidence

I’ve just finished The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman.  I picked this book up last year, started it, then set it aside and forgot about it.  A few weeks ago, I picked it up again.  I’m glad I did.  The book is well researched and reveals some interesting things about how confidence works, for all people, but with an emphasis on why women seem to feel less confident.

I think about confidence all the time, for myself, and also for my students. I regularly have students who are afraid to get things wrong and who think they’re not any good at what they’re doing.  My first year of teaching Computer Science, I was carrying around some flyers for the robotics club to post, and as I passed a student standing at the library desk, I held one up to her and said, “You should come give it a try.”  She said, “Oh no, I’m not smart enough for that.”  And my heart sank.  I have a suspicion that many a student doesn’t even try to take one of my classes because they think it will be too hard.

And that’s one of the interesting facts that Kay and Shipman reveal in their book.  They found one study where men and women were given a test on 3D shapes.  The men outperformed the women significantly, which some might think revealed a deficit in women’s spatial reasoning ability.  A closer look at the results, however, showed that the women didn’t even answer a significant number of the questions and that’s where the difference in performance lay.  They gave the test again, and this time, they told everyone they couldn’t leave an answer blank.  When the results were tallied this time, the women performed as well as the men.  When women try at most things, they do just as well.  This result says to me that making things that people are afraid of mandatory might help eliminate the gap in performance between women and men.  And yes, I’m thinking about Computer Science, but there are other things as well.

The other interesting take away for me was that to be confident as a woman does not mean becoming more like a man–entirely.  Again, studies show that women who exhibit a balance of stereotypically male and female confident behaviors outperform not only those women who tip one way or the other, but also men who behave in stereotypically male ways or who exhibit feminine characteristics.

Kay and Shipman summarize their findings like this:

Think Less. Take Action. Be Authentic.

For the intellectuals among you, do not be alarmed by the the “think less” mantra.  It turns out that women, more so than men, overthink their decisions.  Rather than say, asking for a raise, they’ll think about all the reasons they shouldn’t or why they don’t deserve it, etc.  So thinking less moves you to action, but you must be authentic to your values and beliefs.  It seems like sound advice generally.

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