Women, Confidence And The Problem No One Is Talking About

Ever since I read an article in The Atlantic about The Confidence Gap between men and women, I haven’t been able to get it off my mind. Mostly, I think, because the article put words and research to something I’ve noticed take shape in my own life over the years: women (myself included) lacking the confidence men seem to have in droves.

Of course, this is a generalization. And of course my experience is limited.

women-confidence

But the research seems to support my observations: women are less likely to share their opinions in a group of people, more likely to apologize for things that aren’t their fault, less likely to take risks, more likely to take criticism personally and less likely to consider themselves competent in their work.

What is confidence?

There are many different ways to define the word confidence but I love the definition authors of the book The Confidence Code use:

Confidence is not, as we once believed, just feeling good about yourself. If women simply needed a few words of reassurance, they’d have commandeered the corner office long ago. Perhaps the clearest, and most useful, definition of confidence we came across was the one supplied by Richard Petty, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, who has spent decades focused on the subject. “Confidence,” he told us, “is the stuff that turns thoughts into action (Kay & Shipman, 2014).

Did you catch that? Confidence is the stuff that turns thought into action.

So the writers I work with on a daily basis (99{9ac618bfda39dd0c8c9a0232963cb9a2adfe54a7367c2d4954ad9e847b2e5305} women) who are desperate for me to tell them their idea is a good one before they move ahead with it, or who are vying for the validation of a publishing contract before they begin to write their book—that’s a lack of self confidence. Or the woman I know who confided in me how terrified she was to speak up at a table full of men… that’s a confidence issue.

It’s one I can identify with strongly—but it’s a confidence issue nonetheless.

Confidence is the reason my friend who is a gifted dance instructor hasn’t yet tried to monetize what she does for a living, even though people are begging her to. She’s terrified to fail and afraid she’s “asking too much” by charging money for her skills. It’s the reason another friend, who is a successful businesses woman and mother underplays her skills and abilities—especially around men.

It’s the reason I have thought to myself, on more than one occasion, “How lucky am I to have found success in this area…” while the men I know think to themselves, “look at how hard I’ve worked to get where I am.”

Why are women lacking in confidence?

It would be difficult to have this conversation without talking about how culture has shaped the confidence of women. On the one hand, never before in the history of the world have women had so many opportunities open to them:

In the United States, women now earn more college and graduate degrees than men do. We make up half the workforce, and we are closing the gap in middle management. Half a dozen global studies, conducted by the likes of Goldman Sachs and Columbia University, have found that companies employing women in large numbers outperform their competitors on every measure of profitability. Our competence has never been more obvious. Those who closely follow society’s shifting values see the world moving in a female direction (Kay & Shipman, 2014).

And yet, we can’t ignore that, for decades (centuries) women have been taught to be silent, stay at home, remain uninformed, listen to their husbands, obey the rules, to play nice, and to take care of others at the expense of themselves. There is just no way this legacy wouldn’t make it difficult for a person—any person—to feel confident in their own sense of self-worth.

Not to mention, while women are certainly making progress in the work world, we are still the primary caretakers—not only of children and husbands but of our extended families as well. I met a man recently who runs an assisted living facility and do you know who he said their primary marketing is directed toward?

The eldest son’s wife. She is the one coordinating care.

And while there is nothing wrong with women being caretakers, it does add a complicated layer to this whole confidence issue. It is virtually impossible for us to make decisions without considering the laundry list of possible impact—how might this be perceived, who might this offend, how my choices might impact the life of someone who is in my care.

Then of course, there is also advertising, which too often exploits women or attacks our self-confidence to get us to buy products we don’t need. Entire industries are built off of women feeling like they need plumper breasts or glossier lips or more beautiful teeth.

People are making money—lots of money—off of our lack of confidence.

But that isn’t even the most dangerous problem.

Yes, there are still cultures and communities all over the world where women are seen as second-class citizens. And yes, there are places right in our midst where women are still being downgraded or kept silent or abused. But thanks to the courage of so many women who have gone before us and the courage of so many brave and brilliant men for that matter, fewer and fewer women are questioning the value they have to offer in this world.

But the most dangerous problem we face today, if you ask me, is that there are cultures and communities everywhere, right in our midst, where people mean really well but men and women both are stuck in old, comfortable patterns.

If I’m being really honest, my community is a place like this.

We mean well. We’re trying. Nearly every woman in my life is asking questions about purpose and confidence and working to fulfill her deepest purpose in the world. Nearly all the men in my life are good-hearted, loving, supportive men, committed to making a way for women—stepping aside to share their power and privilege.

But there are still moments where we all fall into old ways of relating to each other.

We find ourselves, as women, relying on men for our confidence.

It’s helpful to remember that the most dangerous enemy of women is not men—who are up against cultural shifts and challenges of their own, to be fair. The most dangerous enemy of women is women. It’s the way we treat each other, the thoughts we have about ourselves, the permission we give ourselves to opt out of doing what is difficult and new.

The biggest reason we, as women, lack the confidence so many men have is because we keep blaming things like culture and advertising and the people and structures and communities instead of realizing the truth that we have what it takes to be just as confident in ourselves as men do.

The only one holding us back is us.

We keep waiting for someone else to gift us our confidence when the truth is, we’ve had it all along.

It is inside of us. We’re just keeping it all pent up.

How do I know this? Well, to start, I see women all around me who are killing it when it comes to confidence. If confidence equals action, then not necessarily feeing all put-together when you’re executing that action doesn’t make you lose any confidence points. So in that case, I can think of a thousand women who are ramping up their confidence game.

I watched a terrified but brilliant woman, and friend, recently deliver a beautiful keynote at an event. She was scared (who wouldn’t be?) but she did it anyway, and I’m so glad she did. We needed what she said.

My sister-in-law, who just found out she has cancer, cut off her own, beautiful, long, flowing hair. Rather than let the cancer take it from her, she took action. She showed cancer who was boss. And she looks amazing (actually I think she looks kick-ass. That’s what I told her).

I’ve been listening to Liz Gilbert’s podcast called Big Magic lately and she interviews six women, all in different stages of life, who are all embarking on a creative project. She takes them through what she calls a “Magic Lesson” which is basically helping them discover their inner confidence and creative power. And let me tell you. Each one of these women is taking a massive step of confidence. What an inspiration.

Not to mention Liz Gilbert herself, who is a woman paving the way for all of us.

I could go on and on about women I admire who are taking the world by storm. But here’s what I want you to hear:

Every time you exert your opinion into the world, each time you stand your ground for something you want, each time you exercise your creative energy, every time you take a risk to try something new, even if you know you won’t be good at it—you are building into your own reservoir of confidence, one that you can access anytime you want.

It’s yours. You own it.

I have friends all over the country, and the world, who are bravely creating things and taking risks and going to places they never thought they would go. Some of them are venturing to dangerous parts of the world, some of them are venturing into motherhood, daring to lose sleep and go through labor pains and give themselves over to someone they deeply love.

Women are walking the delicate tightrope between staying at home to care for their families and putting their thoughts, ideas and gifts out there in the world.

This is where confidence comes from.

Thought to action. Applying for the job. Starting the investment account. Reaching out to that new friend. Trying to have a baby. Taking the opportunity. Booking the trip. Saying “yes” where you would normally say “no” or “no” where you would normally say yes.

And the stakes are really high here.

This is not something small we’re talking about. There are so many problems that come along with not having enough self-confidence.

To start, when we don’t know and love who we are, we harm ourselves.

This explains the reckless abandonment with which so many women enter into toxic relationships, and the years after years they stay. It explains experimentation with drugs and overdoing it with alcohol. It explains depression and anxiety, silence in the face of abusive religion. It explains eating disorders and over-exercise or binge-eating and throwing up.

Second, when we don’t know who we are, we can’t really be in relationship with anyone. So many women are waiting to get married in order to feel confident. But if you put two people in a relationship and one person has no idea who she is, there is a word for this.

It’s called co-dependence. And it’s not pretty.

If you want your relationships to grow, if you want to feel closer to and more supported by your friends, if you know your relationship with your significant other isn’t what it could be, hold off on blaming them. Work on your feelings of self-confidence and as your inner-world shifts I bet you’ll see your outer-world will change as well.

Confident women are changing the world.

Without confidence, we can have all kinds of ideas about how we want the world to be, but we will never be able to execute them. Thought to action. That is what confidence does. So if we don’t work on our own sense of self-confidence, it’s going to be difficult for us to make progress on much of anything.

Women can be the answer to so many of the world’s problems.

But not without confidence.

Confident women are ending violence against women. They’re standing up for themselves and saying, “I won’t let you treat me like this. I’m putting an end to this for good.” Confident women are rescuing other women from slavery and prostitution. They’re taking refugees into their homes and giving them money and helping them heal.

Confident women are getting on stages and standing up in their homes and saying to their husbands and their children, “things use to be this way, but that is going to change.”

Confident women are restoring peace in the world.

Confident women are starting businesses and raising brave girls and sensitive boys. They’re speaking up at tables full of men and women alike and standing up against cultural messages that say only a certain kind of person matters.

They’re removing themselves from communities and relationships where they are not valued because they know they will never find their voice where they’re asked to stay silent. They’re deeply compassionate but also strongly convicted and unwilling to act in a way that goes against that conviction.

But most of all, confident women are taking a stand against their own jealousy and pessimism and perfectionism and competitive spirit and are saying to the women around them, “I think you are so brave and beautiful for doing that thing you just did.” They’re taking notes and getting creative and telling themselves, “nothing is impossible… we can do this.”

You are a confident woman. That’s the truth.

You just might not know it yet.

33 comments on “Women, Confidence And The Problem No One Is Talking About

  1. Thank you so much for this message.
    I spent some time as a Human Resources professional. One reason there are more men in senior leadership positions in industries across the board is the issue of confidence. If you have two equally qualified people for a position, one female and one male, the man will get the job a higher percentage of the time. Even though the man is no more qualified, his confidence makes it appear that he is more competent. Men tend to fake it till they make it. Women tend to say things like “I think I can learn to do the job.” Men say “Of course, I can do the job.” Who would you hire?

    • Becky—that is such a perfect example of how a lack of confidence can cripple us! The story also does such a good job of demonstrating how the fate and future of women is in our hands. Act in confidence and get the job more often. Thank you so much for sharing that.

  2. Allison, this is one of your best articles ever on a timely subject for so many women. I’m sharing it with my husband, my sisters, my friends … you have explained why women self-sabotage, why we take criticism personally, why we are prone to apologize way too often. Thank you for the insight and for the wake up call!

    • Thanks Trisha! So glad you liked it. And really appreciate you sharing. This is a message that needs to spread like wildfires.

  3. Allison,

    It’s refreshing to see you writing regularly again. Thank you for being confident, and brave. The world is a better place because of your words.

    Your essay touched on another key reason I think women tend to be less confident and that’s the fear of being disliked by both men and women; particularly other women.

    I’ve seen in my own experiences and from watching others that when a woman develops self-confidence she is instinctively disliked. And the excuses of why amount from everything to “Oh, she’s phony” to “She think she’s all of that.” See any negative tweet about Beyonce to prove this theory.

    Because women want to be liked that fear of criticism, cattiness and pessimism from peers keeps a lot of women from owning their confidence. I’ve been there, dimming my light afraid that it would shine too bright – as if there’s such a thing.

    As you said in your second (third?) to last paragraph, if we’re going to be confident women we have to celebrate other women, too. Traci Ellis Ross said it poignantly when it comes to women pursuing our dreams, there’s no reason to be jealous because there’s enough sun for everyone.

    SH

    • Yes! This is huge. Learning to support other women (rather than compete) is a major step on our journey to finding more self-confidence and giving space for all of us bringing our gifts to the world. If we can have an abundance mindset—rather than a scarcity one—that helps. Maybe I’ll write about that at some point.

      Thank you so much for reading Shakira and for your comment. Appreciate you.

  4. This is so timely. I saw “The Intern” on Friday with my mom and at the end I immediately wanted to email all my friends to come see it with me. I feel like it sparked such similar conversations to what you’ve shared above. Why do women lack confidence? How do we self-sabotage our own success? These are things I want to talk about with my female friends. I’m excited to share you essay with them. Thank you for the encouragement and for not sparing the hard truth.

    • Thanks Jackie. It is such a hard question to answer and at the same time such an important observation. Thanks so much for reading and sharing with the women in your life. Appreciate that.

  5. Oh my gosh I love this so much. It was so refreshing to read your writing. You put words to many things I’ve been thinking and made me feel not so alone in it. Thanks so much for this!

  6. Hi Allison … it’s good to see you back. I’ve missed you. I agree with you. What I find most important is it is ok to be competitive being a man as it’s often expected. For women it can hurt each other particularly in business. Even in sports it’s new for women and some others. More is accomplished with two and certainly more! This is so needed and has been this way for over 40 years that I have observed. It was wrong then and still is. Confidence comes by encouragement whether by a man or another women. The women together can be and are the best to understand how each feels. Men push blindly I think and that’s ok but in general women are stronger in so many more ways. If they would allow each other to be different and redirect their jealousy into support for each other they can all come out better with increased feelings of success and confidence. In a word, HOPE!

    • You have a great point, Rick. Men do tend to be more competitive in their efforts and women more cooperative. I imagine part of this must be born out of necessity and part of it out of wiring. Hard to separate out exactly what belongs to what. But it’s a great point.

      From my perspective, women could stand to be a little more “competitive” in the sense you’re talking about… just that they might take care of themselves sometimes, without always trying to worry about who all that is going to impact. At the same time, I think cutthroat competition—whether you’re a man or woman—is more destructive for all of us than it is helpful. We might all do well to adopt an abundance mindset: no need to compete. There is more than enough to go around!

      Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful response. Appreciate you!

    • Agreed! As a middle aged man I know that this ‘competitiveness’ amongst men is highly destructive.
      We need to move, as a species towards a co-operative system.
      Confidence in men is often very illusory, in women confidence can manifest in something quieter but far more substantial.
      Again, it would be a mistake for women to follow the narrow, selfish rut most men find themselves in.
      I am a sensitive man searching for a sensitive woman. It’s only recently I’ve had the confidence and self knowledge to be OK with being alone, to stop grasping at those who float by.
      The answer for women who lack confidence is, of course the same as for men. To become an individual, to cut the ties with the herd. To develop into a broader, deeper, wiser human being and to embrace the changes that will come our way.

  7. Thanks, Allison! Loved it! I recently read Carol Gilligan’s “Joining the Resistance.” She clarifies her research and digs into the political and societal requisites of love, voice, and citizenship. Women “generally” lose their voices around puberty; some regain voice, others, like me, find it again in mid-life. Losing voice is bigger than my family of origin and schooling. It’s bigger than the campus where I work…and continue to be treated as less than. It’s bigger than the community where I live that’s run and managed mostly by men. I was scolded at a local board meeting a while back when I confronted obvious gender inequities, “Kelli, don’t play the gender card here.” Voice silenced… Thanks for all your give, Allison! Mostly, thanks for your voice. 🙂

    • Kelli—I’m so fascinated by what you said about women losing their voices around puberty. I definitely want to do some more thinking about that. And I’d love to read that book you mentioned, too. Putting it on my list. All this stuff is so interesting to me.

      Good for you for finding yourself and your voice, despite what men in your life might say. You’re a confident woman! Keep it up. This world needs the gifts you have to bring.

      Thanks for reading.

  8. I absolutely needed this today. It’s been a rough year for me and confidence has always been something I lack but have never been able to figure out how to achieve. Thank you for the powerful article and the belief in womanhood. I’m truly inspired by your words!

  9. This piece brought up some interesting things for me… I am a lifestyle designer who encourages women to create confidence by embracing their truth. (Which obviously looks different for everyone depending on their faith journey, their past experiences, and their current pursuits.)

    I completely agree with the way you’ve outlined confidence here, and I’ve learned to treat confidence not as some fancy be-jeweled crown that you can only possess if you look or feel a certain way, but instead: My clients and I use it as a valuable catalyst that can launch us into the world as we share Great Love with others.

    I always LOVE coming across other women who align with a similar approach, and I’m excited to hear more from you on this topic!

    PS. – The “interesting things” I referenced above are actually more about my thoughts on what it means to be a confident wife… I’ve learned so much about what this means through stumbling through the podcast that my husband and I launched together this year, and for some reason — I’m feeling particularly challenged to explore how I can infuse my personal approach with tenderness AND strength that both bless my sweetie-pie husband at the same time. Will report back if I have any ground-breaking epiphanies! 😉

  10. This is so great! And I can definitely relate to it. It’s funny how we do things/think things/discredit ourselves, etc. without even realizing it! I feel more empowered after you’ve brought this more into the light. Thank you!

  11. Such a great article! I feel strongly about this issue and try to encourage the women in my life to not be so hard on themselves and see how great they really are. So many of my girlfriends are such great, strong, loving women and see the good in others but lack so much confidence in themselves, it breaks my heart to see.
    Thank you for writing so beautifully about it.
    Btw you are a great writer and I really enjoy reading your thoughts:)

  12. This is a topic of conversation that has been on my mind for months. I was in a leadership position and actually fired so of course I’m analyzing what if anything it had to do with how I lead, but more than anything it’s also forced me to acknowledge my own professional worth. To recognize it and to really simmer it in my thoughts. I’m still chewing on the topic but this was so relevant!

  13. Thought into action. I was reminded of the Strength Finders assessment in the section about needing permission or positive input from someone else — one of the traits has to do with “needs gold stars,” acknowledgment that they’re doing the right thing, etc. It made me wonder if this is a natural trait, or if they’ve liked at the percentage of women vs. men that have that trait. Same thing with self assurance, just from the other angle.

  14. If you choose to believe that it is all as Kay and Shipman write, then that’s fine for you. But, there truly is more that is understood and more to understand about differences in brain gender. If you’re more curious, I suggest the three books by neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux. These are a good beginning in understanding of how our switches are set (both by nature and by nurture) and how they can be reset using our extraordinary cognition. Just don’t be in a hurry…Yet.

  15. If a man wrote this, it would be labeled as sexist. And that’s a large part of the problem for women in regards to confidence.
    Confidence is closely related to responsibility.

    If you cannot exercise resonsibility for outcomes then you cannot be confident. It’s as simple as that. Confidence and responsibility cannot be delegated to the group. It must be assumed personally.

    In my experience, most women are too consumed with group think, or base every decisions on what the perceive is best for, or most appealing to the group. Of course there’s a big difference between what’s popular in regards to the group instead of what is rational and a better course of action in regards to a particular goal within the group or organization. Biologically speaking men are risk takers. It comes naturally. For women it’s a learned behavior. The misc prefer consultation and shared responsibility within a group. When the group is absent, confusion, compliance and a lack of confidence is often the end result.

    So what is the solution? It is definitely not to emulate men. It is to acknowledge and use you innate strength and nature for the good of the group and personally. This cannot be accomplished by attacking the other sex or in the former of male envying

    Yes, men are inherently better at most workplace tasks than women. It is a biological fact.

  16. So nobody even cares that by your own accepted standards, given to you by a system of economy designed by men, you simply now valuate your worth solely based on how much you earn, how much you can can ear, and how much someone is willing to pay you.

    Seems to me that women are the ons driving this huge animal desire to monetize the world for the sake of more women being able to ostentatiously flaunt their wealth.

    Wow.

  17. Loved this article. I think too, that women are critical of each other. We can be hypocrites. We say we want to be heard and valued but when other females speak up, are confident or express disagreement, we call them aggressive, bitchy or full of themselves. I see this in the profession of nursing where there is a large cohort of females. The way women treat each other can be really cruel. Are we intimidated by other women’s successes? By their power? I feel this is very different from the way we view the same behaviour in men. We simply see it as masculine. We need to support each other not crap on one another. Gossip and backstabbing needs to stop if we want to progress.

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