When I was in my 20s and working on a suburban newspaper, the position of night police reporter became available. Ambitious and thirsty for by-lines, I knew that the round would greatly boost my profile on the paper, yet I seriously questioned whether I had enough experience – my self doubt reinforced by a senior male journalist who told me the position had always been held by a bloke.
I decided not to apply, and was infuriated a few weeks later when I learned a colleague – more junior than I – was awarded the gig. He blundered through, talked the talk, and his career catapulted.
According to the authors of a new book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, my “crisis of confidence” is a common problem in women, even among successful high achieving professionals.
Authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, found that unlike men, women do not go for promotions if there is a chance they won’t get it, they predict they will fail at tests, and they are reluctant to speak up at meetings.
When it comes to applying for a promotion, women wait until they meet 100 per cent of the prerequisites whereas men are happy if they meet 60 per cent, one study they cited found.
“There is a particular crisis for women, a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes – and it is holding them back from career success,” they write in their article published this month in The Atlantic, The Confidence Gap.
The pair interviewed numerous high achieving women, including female investment bankers, athletes, and Silicon Valley executives, who said they often felt like “imposters” or undeserving of their success. Even Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg revealed “she wakes up feeling like a fraud”.
On the flipside
Interestingly, but not particularly surprisingly, while women are underestimating their abilities, men are overestimating theirs.
The authors believe the disparity is partly due to our upbringing (girls are taught to be perfectionists, play nice, and not be pushy) as well as our differing brain structures and hormones. Men have ten times more testosterone than women, a hormone that encourages power, winning and risk taking.
This might explain why men are four times more likely to negotiate a payrise, and ask for 30 per cent more money than woman do.
But while I agree women could do with a confidence boost, to attribute lack of opportunity and career success to a woman’s personality is to ignore a much bigger factor at play – sexism. Institutional gender bias remains alive and well.
Women still earn less than men, and we continue to be woefully represented at the executive level. The number of women on Australia’s top corporate remains depressingly low at 17.6 per cent, according to a 2012 report.
As well, women risk so-called “career suicide” if they decide to dip out of the workforce to have babies or demand flexible childcare hours.
Surviving the professional jungle
But while the authors’ views do seem limited, they do give some good advice – success “in the professional jungle” is as much about confidence as it is about competence.
“It’s not enough to keep one’s head down and plug away, checking items off a list,” they write.
“Having talent isn’t merely about being competent; confidence is a part of that talent. You have to have it to excel.”
Men, it seems, grew up knowing this. When I asked my boyfriend how often he or his mates suffer self doubt, he replied: “Oh, all the time. We just hide it better.”
So ladies, it is likely that the guy sitting next to you in the office today, or the executive at that board meeting is secretly riddled with self doubt and insecurities, and is no more competent or smarter than you.
The answer seems obvious – just fake it. If only success was that simple.
Ellen Connolly is an Australian journalist based in New York.