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Three Common Beliefs about a Woman’s Confidence

A woman’s confidence is lower than a man’s confidence. I’ve heard it a zillion times, and it makes sense considering the socialization of girls.

Did I have confidence issues as a child? Um yes. I was 6 feet tall in the 8th grade and stuck out like a sore thumb, I had learning challenges that found me with tutors galore, and I couldn’t find my place. I remember coming home to a number of pamphlets on the kitchen table with different school options. All I could think was that I couldn’t cut it at the rigorous school I attended. 

Photo of a young Mary on a basketball team towering over the other girls

Does anyone actually escape childhood without thinking they were different at some point? It feels like a universal truth of growing up.

But as I grew into my body, expanded my purview, and had more life experiences, I felt like I came into my own and had great confidence. 

So this idea that women have less confidence than men felt plausible, but I didn’t necessarily feel that as an adult. Maybe I was just different.

I dove into the research, and here is what I found.

Common Beliefs about a Woman’s Confidence

Like most things, the story of a woman’s confidence doesn’t fit into a neat little package. Neat packages make for good headlines, clickable ads, and book sales, but the research about confidence is a bit all over the map.

If you come up with a narrative, you can probably find the research to support it. 

Here are three theories that appear in widely shared leadership content. After spending time with these, my overwhelming takeaway is that you have to do the work to figure out where you fall along this continuum. Depending on your life circumstances, some may be true, but just because the research indicates that something is true doesn’t mean it is true for you.

Theory 1: Women are Less Confident than Men

This is the core belief about confidence that I have always understood to be true. And maybe, depending on the environment you were raised in, women do tend to have less confidence than men. If it feels true to you, you aren’t alone in that, and I can absolutely understand how that makes sense. There are several studies that support this.

But this wasn’t my reality. And apparently, I am not alone.

I found an interesting meta-analysis of research of nearly 100,000 participants that shows a TINY difference in self-confidence favoring males after age 23. Up until the age of 23, that discrepancy is significantly larger. This felt more true to me – that in the younger years, girls’ confidence is lower than boys, but as they become adults, that gap significantly closes.

Theory 2: If women increase their confidence and learn to position themselves better, they will find greater success.

There have been several studies that show a correlation between confidence and success.

I can totally see this. On the daily, I interact with (over)-confident people whose success remains a giant mystery. I always chalk it up to them being good at “playing the game,” which generally translates to they are good at saying the right things and acting like they know what the hell is going on, regardless of how much value they are actually delivering. 

This belief has led to the advice that if women want to get promoted or rise in the workforce, they should just act more confident and own their accomplishments.  

Sure, in theory. 

But, there have been multiple studies that show that when women try on the traits seen as confidence in men, they actually lose influence because of a (usually) unseen gender bias. When women don’t come across as altruistic and empathetic, they are failing to conform to the norms that people expect of them. And in case you think this is just men that exhibit this bias, alas, women can also be biased toward other women. 

Theory 3: A woman’s confidence is just as high as a man’s, but she is NOT as confident that OTHERS see her the same way she see herself.

This is starting to get to my truer experience. I love this quote from Sarah Green Carmichael – 

“Again and again, when we look at adult women, we don’t see a bunch of shrinking violets who could get ahead with just a little more moxie.” 

A body of research points to some women underestimating how others see them. 

This research looked at how women leaders understand how their bosses see their leadership skills. In two studies, they asked women leaders to rate themselves, their bosses to rate them, and then for the women to guess how their bosses rated them. They found that women tend to underestimate how their bosses see them compared to men. They also found out why this happens, and it’s not a simple picture – it could be from lack of confidence, learned gender roles, or even self-sexism. 

To bring it back to self-awareness, this is all about correctly understanding how people view us. Even if you have great internal self-awareness, that may not help you reach accurate conclusions about how others view you.

Understanding Self-Awareness vs. Self-Confidence

Self-confidence and self-awareness are closely related. Self-awareness is your understanding of your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors (and their impact on others), while self-confidence is a belief in your ability to succeed.

When you have high self-awareness, you better understand your strengths and weaknesses, which can lead to increased self-confidence. But I think it can also work in reverse. If you have confidence in yourself, you can be more open to feedback, thus increasing your self-awareness.

So What Do I Do with This?

I realize that I presented different theories that may confuse you more than help you. But, I believe that each of us has to unpack our relationship with confidence to determine how to move forward. 

I’ve put together some exercises in the confidence resource kit that can help you go a bit deeper, depending on where you find yourself. Here are a few suggestions, but more can be found in the kit:

  • If you lead teams, build a culture where people share their successes. Start meetings by asking each person to share one thing they’ve achieved since the last time they were together. It could be work-related or not. Let each person define an accomplishment and have a turn to share it. 
  • I’m also a big believer in bringing specialists to teach unconscious bias. Crappy video training modules don’t usually cut it. Find an expert. 
  • If you struggle with understanding how others perceive you, consider an exercise called the Reflected Best Self (RBS), which is designed to understand your personal best.

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