Building Confidence


Studies show that women’s lack of confidence results in their failure to act. Whether it manifests itself as not raising their hand in class, applying for promotions or asking for raises, it is under confidence that holds them back.

Women often misunderstand the professional jungle by considering competence to be the most important factor. While competence is critical, confidence is an essential ingredient as well. If you lack confidence in your abilities, your effectiveness as a leader suffers. Men and women alike must have confidence to be good at their job.

Linda Babcok, professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University and author of Women Don’t Ask, found that women advocate for their own advancement less often than men. Studies showed that men ask for salary increases four times more than women, and when women do speak up to negotiate higher pay, they request thirty percent less than the men on average.

Men clearly do not limit their own abilities. If anything, they tend to lean towards overconfidence. The Columbia Business School even has a term for the inclination: “honest overconfidence.” They have found that men on average estimate their value thirty percent higher than their actual ability. This is, of course, not earth-shattering news to women. While men are guilty of unrealistic self-perception, women have their own issues.

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A woman’s propensity to pursue perfection keeps her from tackling tasks she views as out of her skill set, or simply beyond her comfort zone. Hewlett-Packard conducted a study to find out why more women do not ascend to top management positions. Their studies found that women only apply for promotions when they are one-hundred percent certain of their qualifications, while men would go for it when they perceived they had only sixty percent of the skills required. Basically, women only feel they are capable when they achieve perfection, or as close as possible.

It is certainly not a shock to anyone that women are challenged by self-doubt. After all, it is an entirely new phenomenon that it is even possible for women to attain top offices. It shouldn’t be expected that we could so easily shake off centuries upon centuries of discrimination and subjugation. Let’s remember: less than 100 years ago, we were little more than chattel to men, without even the right to vote in America.

But, science may have some astonishing answers as to how we may be able to leapfrog generations of predisposed under confidence to become the strong, vibrant, female leaders the world desperately needs.

Science Says

To examine the origin of personality, one must recognize the importance of genetics. “A lot of personality is biologically driven,” says Dr. Jay Lombard, one of the founders of Genomind, a pioneering genetic testing company. The explosion of genetic study in the past few decades has fundamentally transformed our understanding of biology, thereby challenging some of Darwin’s theories of evolution. The survival of the fittest theory still holds true. However, the study of genetics proves our “fitness” can be readily manipulated.

Robert Pluomin, a renowned behavioral geneticist at Kings’s College in London, studied 15,000 sets of twins over a 20-year period in hopes of unlocking the secrets of nature versus nurture. The studies showed that the children’s self-perceived ability rating, or SPA, was a significant predictor of achievement—even more so than IQ. Screenshot 2016-03-08 10.27.30Pluomin’s research also suggests that the link between genes and confidence may be as high as 50 percent, perhaps even more closely related than IQ. Not only do his findings support the importance of cultivating confidence in children, but also their parents. We pass along our own self-perception of ability in our actions, as well as in our genes. It is not good enough to teach your children to believe in themselves, you must also believe in yourself or you are likely to give little Johnny or Joannie a big dose of self doubt along with your blue eyes. The good news is that by building your own confidence, you may pass that along as well.

Scientists at universities around the country are studying epigenetics, which studies how life experiences imprint our DNA, thereby changing the way genes behave. While certain traits such as eye color and height are fixed, character traits are more malleable. By studying identical twins, scientists are able to determine how genes are turned on or off through environment and experiences. Even more exciting is the discovery that those changes can be passed to offspring. This revolutionary concept challenges Darwin’s theory that it takes multiple generations to see genetic change.

Frances Champagne, a psychologist at Columbia, leads a team of researchers exploring the effects of prenatal events on children. Her research studies the effect of stress on women as well as men, and their future offspring. It was found that women who witnessed the 9/11 attacks passed on measurable levels of stress hormones to their babies. While we do not have definitive answers as to how extensively a mother’s character traits will pass onto her children, it is certain that her life experience does play a part in the genetic equation.

For more than forty years, neuropsychologist Steve Suomi of the National Institutes of Health has studied a colony of 300 rhesus monkeys that were transplanted from their original home in Sri Lanka to the countryside of Maryland in hopes of unlocking the complicated equation of nature versus nurture. Suomi’s research has unlocked the role of maternal guidance and genetic dispositions. By shuffling genetically predisposed anxious or confident infant monkeys with mothers of varying nurturing abilities, he was able to see startling repercussions of parental influence and the role of genetics.

Basically, monkeys born with resilient genes did fine with any mother, but monkeys who had the social anxiety gene grew to be anxious adults when raised by anxious or neglectful mothers. Not surprisingly, a great mother was able to transform a genetically predisposed anxious baby into a healthy adult, proving that with proper nurturing, a child could brake from a negative genetic predisposition. While these findings support generally accepted theories of parental influence, what Duomi found next were a radical discovery.

As Katy Kay and Claire Shipman recounted in their book, The Confidence Code, “those so called ‘genetically challenged’ monkeys, when raised by great mothers, don’t just turn out fine, they actually excel. They thrive. They become stronger, healthier, and more confident than their peers. They become superstars, if they have a super mom.”

Suomi discovered that genetic dispositions for anxiety could make monkeys more sensitive to their environment. They become sponges to their experiences, absorbing good or bad in more profound ways than others. Other studies in children with a genetic predisposition to ADHD showed that with proper parental interventions, the children showed exponential improvements over children with normal genes. Other studies of adults also support the theory that people born with a sensitive genetic disposition are more easily influenced by positive and negative experiences, and some believe, are more adaptable and able to excel.

These revolutionary findings negate the assumption that so called “damaged individuals” born into abusive situations or with inferior genetic makeup are destined to a difficult future. The findings suggest quite the opposite. Given proper guidance, support and care, the challenged among us are more likely to become superstars.

Boys vs. Girls

Following the same line of reasoning, women who have generally been relegated to the corridors of business and politics, if exposed to nurturing environments that value their skills and knowledge, will undoubtedly thrive. Rather than try to morph women into feminized versions of male stereotypes, corporations and governments should recognize the need to re-access their culture and consider how they can create environments that value the qualities and skills women bring to the table.

Perhaps they should give more consideration to the dual problem at play. Women who assume they need to be 100-percent certain they are competent to perform a job before applying are not the whole problem; another key factor to address is men’s abundance of over confidence. Many lives have been lost and fortunes gambled, due to men’s over assessments of their abilities.

Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of Business Psychology at University of College London and author of the book Confidence, argues that over confidence is rampant among men. He believes women in general have a much better gauge of their true abilities and disagrees with attempts to embolden them to be more like men. “The world would be a much better place if we managed to make men more like women, because the problem is not that women lack confidence—men have too much of it,” he says. Chamorro-Premuzic also acknowledges the different criteria used to evaluate men and women. “Society punishes manifestations of confidence in women, and rewards them in men, which only reinforces the natural differences between the genders.”

Another striking difference between the sexes is the dynamics of same-sex relationships. Boys do not emotionally support and share with each other the way that girls do, and yet, they strengthen each other’s confidence in profound ways. The teasing and “roughhousing” that seems to be a rite of passage with boys builds resilience against criticism, which comes in handy in life.

As a mother of two boys, I have noticed the differences in my sons’ nature from infancy. As an acknowledged “girly girl” who was raised with only an older “even girlier girl” sister, the difference in sibling interaction between my sister and me than that of my boys fascinates me. My first “aha” moment happened when I witnessed their first brawl.

My youngest son was only a few months old, lying on a blanket on the floor. He was peacefully playing with his toy, when his brother, who is eighteen months older, tackles him out of nowhere. They rolled around wrestling and laughing as if this behavior was coded into their DNA, as an unspoken language among the male of the species.

“Is drop, tackle and roll the primal communication instinct of males?” I wondered.

I remember thinking little girls don’t do this. Little girls color together, play with dolls and have tea parities; they don’t throw each other to the floor, at least not before a good deal of verbal negotiation and screaming.

Over the years, my sons’ communication has evolved. They play well together, but not without an occasional conflict, and heaven forbid one miss an opportunity to point out when the other makes a mistake or doesn’t have a good game. And yet, it doesn’t appear to bother them. Occasionally, there have been tears, but mostly, hurt feelings are reciprocated with a mild punch or a quick insult.

I have come to regard their sibling rituals as brotherly love. It’s a beautiful thing, really. I appreciate the Teflon skin they help each other grow. I doubt when someone fires off a negative remark to my sons that either will run for the exit in hysterics. Hopefully, they will laugh it off and walk away. It’s likely they might respond with, “Ha, that’s all you got? My brother could do better than that at 7.”

The Playing Field

There is quite a lot women and men can learn from our differences, which is why it is vital to strive for equality in all facets of life. Recognizing the positive impact of sports, Title IX legislation was passed in 1972, making it illegal for U. S. public schools to spend more on boys’ athletics than girls. As a result, the number of girls playing sports drastically increased. It has been found that girls who play team sports are more likely to graduate from college, get a job and work in male-dominated industries.

While the number of high school girls playing sports has increased 1,000 percent from 1972 to 2011, the girls are still, unfortunately, six times more likely to drop out of their team sports as boys according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A drop in confidence during the tumultuous pubescent years may be a common reason for this decline. Academics and psychologists confirm that while girls maintain high self-esteem in elementary school, by adolescence it begins to plummet. This lack of confidence may make them less able to handle losing in sports, contributing to the drop in sports participation, which is ironically one of the best ways to gain self-esteem. Boys, by comparison, appear to embrace competition. On the field, they learn to savor success and brush off a loss. The confidence they gain from a win and the adoration of classmates bleeds over into their academics, emboldening them to raise their hand in class, even before they have formulated an answer.

Physiologists also believe this “playground mentality” toughens boys, allowing insults to roll off them. They become less affected by others’ remarks or perceptions of their abilities, which is a useful tool when they head out into the cold, harsh world of adulthood. By contrast, girls don’t take kindly to insults. While mean girls troll the hallways and social media, the negative comments they spew do not slide so easily off the backs of young girls. Quite the contrary—adolescence is a fragile time for them.

Girls often double down on their academics during the critical phase of development. Seeking the approval of teachers and parents, they pour themselves into their studies.

Eventually, they leave school proud of their academic achievements, crammed full of facts and theories. When they transition from the classroom to the business world, their impeccable manners and grammatical prowess are not as valuable.

Innovation, self-promotion, courage and a healthy dose of political savvy are keys to winning in business. Success is measured by a different yardstick out of academia. Business rewards those who swing for the wall, think on their feet and recover from setbacks. Some young women find the choppy waters of corporate politics difficult to navigate, which only undermines an already-fragile perception of self worth.

Many successful women admit to suffering from “impostor syndrome,” feeling as if they ended up in their position by accident without having earned the right to be there. The term first appeared in 1978 in an article written by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Ime, who observed that many high-achieving women tend to believe they were not intelligent enough and are over-evaluated by others. Women who have recently expressed experiencing the syndrome are Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and actress Emma Watson.

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Double Standards

Speaking of evaluations, it cannot go without mention than women are measured by a different standard than men. Even when women summon the courage and confidence to raise their hand, buck the system and risk alienation by taking an opposing view, their efforts are not seen in the same light as men. Let’s face it: women who are strong, no-nonsense leaders are rarely held in the same regard as their male colleagues. While a man is revered and respected for his strength, women are often labeled as “bossy,” or “bitchy.”

Linda Hudson, the president and CEO of BAE Systems, has been a rare female leader in the global defense industry for decades. In The Confidence Code, she acknowledges that, “When a man walks into a room, they’re assumed to be competent until they prove otherwise.” Yet, for women the assumption is reversed. This is no surprise to women who have long perceived that they must excel beyond their male colleagues just to earn a seat at the table. Sadly, even when they finally earn that coveted position, the price tag on their hard-won seat is less than their male colleagues—an average of 21 percent less according to 2014 studies of full-time working females.

The United States was ground zero for the women’s suffrage movement, beginning with the first gathering devoted to women’s rights held July 19, 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York. The most recent Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum ranks the United States at the bottom of some of the most significant measures of equality. The U. S. ranks number 1 for educational attainment, but a dismal sixtieth for woman’s political empowerment and sixty-seventh in gender pay equality—a stunning reality.

Although barriers are still abundant, some of the gaps in leadership are undeniably of our own making. Often, women prefer to be liked more than they need to be respected. Business negotiations can be difficult for women who value their likability more than the deal. To make the challenge even more complicated, it is acknowledged that women are valued for their likability factor. A woman’s capacity to get along is a crucial ingredient to success in business, as Sheryl Sandberg noted her book Lean In. They are relegated to a tightrope-balancing act between nice and tough: the razor thin line between bossy bitch and beloved leader.

Conquering the Summit

There is no denying that women have succeeded in impressive numbers in the past few decades. We have filled the middle ranks of business in a commendably short period of time. Over half of all bachelors’ degrees are earned by women today, while a fairly equal number of entry- and mid-level positions in companies are filled by females. And yet, the highest positions in academia, government and business remain remarkably male. Top-ranking executives of the female persuasion are still somewhat of an anomaly across the globe.

As heads of state and business leaders converged on the Swiss mountain town of Davos for the annual World Economic Summit this year, women, or the lack thereof (only 18 percent of attendees were women) was a hot topic, right up there with climate change and refugees. Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent conceded, “We need the three W’s: women, water and well-being.” They acknowledged the problem and shared ways in which some had implemented programs to address the challenge of helping women reach the highest ranks of business and government.

Although it may sound bold that the good old boys want to set aside more seats for the ladies to join the club, profit might be a more likely motivating factor than their feminism side bubbling to the surface. I doubt it is a coincidence that now that women account for not just half but the majority of the buying power in much of the global marketplace, suddenly the old boys are feeling generous. By 2020, women will control 65 percent of the wealth in the United States. But regardless of how they got there, the fact that global leaders are considering joining the HeForShe movement to get more women in the room is good news.

Obviously, a future where women and men work together to find solutions will make for a better world. Statistics prove when women are equally represented, societies flourish. In Finland, which is basically the world’s shining example of a successful society by all accounts, women hold 44% of political seats.

Helping women break free of many self defeating habits to gain more confidence in their ability, and creating pathways in government and business for them to succeed to the highest levels, are vital keys to solving many of the world problems. Equality is about much more than equal pay and the corner office. It is perhaps the missing element to secure a peaceful world, which continues to elude humanity. After all, it takes both a male and female to create life: it seems only logical that it would take both to create peace. Screenshot 2016-02-25 12.30.15

READ MORE: Part Two “Guide To Building Confidence

This article is feautred in our GRAVITAS Winter 2016 Issue
By Jules Lewis Gibson,
Founder & President GRAVITAS Magazine
Follow Jules on Twitter @ SeasideJules
For additional reading on the subject of confidence, we recommend Katy Kay and Claire Shipman’s book, The Confidence Code.

Read more articles by Jules


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