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The Confidence Gap
July 31, 2014 9:30 PM   Subscribe

Why are women so less self-assured and why are men so overconfident? The Atlantic takes on what they are calling the "confidence gap," the tendency of women to underplay their expertise to lack confidence in both their achievements and their potential.

A few pulls:
A meticulous 2003 study by the Cornell psychologist David Dunning and the Washington State University psychologist Joyce Ehrlinger homed in on the relationship between female confidence and competence. [...]

They gave male and female college students a quiz on scientific reasoning. Before the quiz, the students rated their own scientific skills. “We wanted to see whether your general perception of Am I good in science? shapes your impression of something that should be separate: Did I get this question right?,” Ehrlinger said. The women rated themselves more negatively than the men did on scientific ability: on a scale of 1 to 10, the women gave themselves a 6.5 on average, and the men gave themselves a 7.6. When it came to assessing how well they answered the questions, the women thought they got 5.8 out of 10 questions right; men, 7.1. And how did they actually perform? Their average was almost the same—women got 7.5 out of 10 right and men 7.9.

To show the real-world impact of self-perception, the students were then invited—having no knowledge of how they’d performed—to participate in a science competition for prizes. The women were much more likely to turn down the opportunity: only 49 percent of them signed up for the competition, compared with 71 percent of the men. “That was a proxy for whether women might seek out certain opportunities,” Ehrlinger told us. “Because they are less confident in general in their abilities, that led them not to want to pursue future opportunities.”
What about self-assurance and perception of leadership and status?
The fact is, overconfidence can get you far in life. Cameron Anderson, a psychologist who works in the business school at the University of California at Berkeley, has made a career of studying overconfidence. In 2009, he conducted some novel tests to compare the relative value of confidence and competence. He gave a group of 242 students a list of historical names and events, and asked them to tick off the ones they knew.

Among the names were some well-disguised fakes: a Queen Shaddock made an appearance, as did a Galileo Lovano, and an event dubbed Murphy’s Last Ride. The experiment was a way of measuring excessive confidence, Anderson reasoned. The fact that some students checked the fakes instead of simply leaving them blank suggested that they believed they knew more than they actually did. At the end of the semester, Anderson asked the students to rate one another in a survey designed to assess each individual’s prominence within the group. The students who had picked the most fakes had achieved the highest status.
"So where does all of this start? If women are competent and hardworking enough to outpace men in school, why is it so difficult to keep up later on?"
posted by amanda (57 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite

 
My answer to this one: I feel like I have an infinitely long line of people who are telling me how horrible, dumb, stupid, etc. I am. All. The. Time.

Admittedly, it doesn't help that my family is nitpicky and my job is one where you are guaranteed to be complained about constantly. But I just feel like at the fundamental level of my being, I suck because I'm not what everyone else wants me to be. And they outnumber me, and they are LOUD. How am I genuinely supposed to think I'm awesome?
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:42 PM on July 31 [16 favorites]


Oh, and as for the women won't apply unless they are 100% qualified thing: Women are always being judged as worse than men. They NEED to be so much better than men in order to win out over one. Men are graded on a curve, as it were. A woman can't squeak by with 60% of the qualifications and get the job based on her smug superiority and confidence and manly handshake. She better be perfect.

"Women feel confident only when they are perfect. Or practically perfect."

Absolutely true.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:45 PM on July 31 [38 favorites]


You can also take their confidence quiz and get results with tips on how to improve your confidence. The questions themselves are kind of amusing. How confident am I that I know the population of a random US city? Not bloody confident! Seems normal. But, then again, I can think of a couple people (all men) who might think that they could provide a ballpark answer to this kind of question... with confidence!
posted by amanda at 10:15 PM on July 31 [4 favorites]


Reminds me of a mantra my therapist passed down to me that went something like, "what would a straight, white male do in this situation?"
posted by en forme de poire at 10:34 PM on July 31 [16 favorites]


Here’s a thorny question: If Rebecca did behave just like Robert, exhibiting his kind of confidence, what would her boss think then? There is evidence that Rebecca wouldn’t fare so well, whether her boss was male or female.

That's the point that really puts the lid on it, depressingly.
posted by Segundus at 10:38 PM on July 31 [34 favorites]


We're educating women to overvalue other people's opinions of them. Confidence is not caring what others think of you, which paradoxically makes them value you.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:01 PM on July 31 [4 favorites]


Yes, but I think we're also saying that confidence in women is viewed differently. It's really the combination of the two that makes it such a tricky thing to negotiate.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 11:11 PM on July 31 [8 favorites]


The protagonists in stories, histories and myths that focus on intellectual or leadership capabilities are overwhelmingly male. Is it surprising that women second guess themselves?
posted by freya_lamb at 11:16 PM on July 31 [1 favorite]


It seems women face consequences for appearing confident that men don't. Even if they display over confidence, it does not make people value them more in the same way that works for men.
posted by xarnop at 11:20 PM on July 31 [12 favorites]


Yeah, the result of this is to blame me for feeling insecure, and then punish me for acting confident. Fucking double-bind.
posted by suelac at 11:47 PM on July 31 [45 favorites]


Thanks for posting this article. It's excellent and valuable, and I really needed to read it today. The phenomenon it discusses has never been more obvious to me than in the past few years, as a female law graduate.

Also, I wonder if I could get away with calling my future legal practice Dunning Kruger.
posted by Salamander at 12:42 AM on August 1 [2 favorites]


When I was freshly out of graduate school, I was going into interviews with all these techniques that the career people at my business school had been pushing on all of us equally, telling us that we needed to apply for anything we were even barely qualified for, that we needed to project confidence in the interviewing process, all this stuff. And it worked, from everything I saw--for the guys, mostly. I spent months unemployed and finally took a job making about half what they told us that the usual starting salaries were, once I started applying only for jobs where I met every last qualification they listed and then some. Yeah, that's stuck with me, it's been reflected in everything I've done since, but what evidence do I have that it shouldn't be? There's a serious cause/effect problem, here.
posted by Sequence at 1:01 AM on August 1 [29 favorites]


Before the quiz, the students rated their own scientific skills

That's most curious, because self-confidence is the very last personality trait you want to see represented in a prospective scientist. One's job as a scientist is to live and operate in a constant state of doubt and to question one's assumptions upon every single occasion anything comes to light which might remotely challenge same. Other merits of the article aside, its implication that lack of self-confidence is systemic or self-reinforcing in the one field which most highly values same is patently untenable.
posted by 7segment at 1:24 AM on August 1 [4 favorites]


You can also take their confidence quiz

I'm absolutely confident that it's assessment of my confidence was complete rubbish.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:51 AM on August 1 [2 favorites]


If you didn't read all the way to the end of the article, I found this bit quite inspiring:

“Confidence,” he told us, “is the stuff that turns thoughts into action.” Of course, other factors also contribute to action. “If the action involves something scary, then what we call courage might also be needed,” Petty explained. “Or if it’s difficult, a strong will to persist might also be needed. Anger, intelligence, creativity can play a role.” But confidence, he told us, is essential, because it applies in more situations than these other traits do. It is the factor that turns thoughts into judgments about what we are capable of, and that then transforms those judgments into action.

And I agree with 5_13_23_42_69_666 that their confidence quiz was surprising, at least. I'd like to see the rational for the questions it asked and the analysis of them that it did.
posted by lollusc at 2:28 AM on August 1 [3 favorites]


If society stopped viewing women as second class citizens and stopped shouting them down when they tried to assert themselves they might have more confidence.

This article basically says: "Women, sort yourselves out."
posted by Summer at 2:29 AM on August 1 [10 favorites]


Here we are with another thread that starts with the premise that men are like this and women are like that. I'm not sure what it is that makes me feel uncomfortable about this sort of topic, but it makes me feel like people still see gender as black and white, pink and blue, no shades in between. As someone who self identifies in-between the two, it makes me feel kind of invisible, I guess. Because I was born male, people assume I have all these supposedly masculine personality traits (in this case, over-confidence) when in reality I'm the most insecure, shy, sensitive person in the world.

I guess someone will jump on me and tell me I'm 'mansplaining,' or bringing out the 'not all men argument' or something now - even though I find that super offensive, since I'm not a man. But what I think I'm trying to say (I struggle to chat about gender issues, because I have trouble detaching myself from the discussion and being objective) is that it's often pretty unhelpful to draw a big fat line between men and women. I wish there was a little more acknowledgment that humanity is not a dull binary, it's a big, beautiful, mixed up thing in discussions like this.
posted by winterhill at 2:38 AM on August 1 [10 favorites]


I guess someone will jump on me and tell me I'm 'mansplaining,'

If it's of any comfort I think you're right. I can't bear it when articles explain the pay gap away as 'women not asking for more' rather than 'women never being given more'.

Some women are confident, some aren't. All of them exist in a society that treats them as inferior.
posted by Summer at 2:49 AM on August 1 [10 favorites]


> I guess someone will jump on me and tell me I'm 'mansplaining,' or bringing out the 'not all men argument' or something now
I generally find this kind of prediction rather unhelpful to the conversation. Why not let the discussion unfold, and react as it happens?

I wish there was a little more acknowledgment that humanity is not a dull binary, it's a big, beautiful, mixed up thing in discussions like this.
I don't think that acknowledging that brings us further in this case. Of course it's oversimplifying things if we assume that men and women are two completely separate groups, with no overlap and no one who cannot be sorted into one of those groups. I assume that we (as we sit here) pretty much all realise that by now.
But oversimplifying things helps us see patterns that are real, that influence our lives, that matter.

It's like a scientific model. We leave out things that, while being true, distract from the patterns we need to see.
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:55 AM on August 1 [7 favorites]


I wish there was a little more acknowledgment that humanity is not a dull binary, it's a big, beautiful, mixed up thing in discussions like this.

Humanity isn't a binary, you're right. But society behaves as if it is a binary (or, even worse, behaves as if one gender is a monolith).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:20 AM on August 1 [17 favorites]


Recent open thread of possible relevance about a paper concluding "Gender Stereotypes about Women’s Ease of Being Misled Predict Negotiator Deception."
posted by XMLicious at 3:41 AM on August 1 [2 favorites]


When I was freshly out of graduate school, I was going into interviews with all these techniques that the career people at my business school had been pushing on all of us equally, telling us that we needed to apply for anything we were even barely qualified for, that we needed to project confidence in the interviewing process, all this stuff. And it worked, from everything I saw--for the guys, mostly. I spent months unemployed and finally took a job making about half what they told us that the usual starting salaries were, once I started applying only for jobs where I met every last qualification they listed and then some.

This was exactly my experience as well.

Maybe women have less confidence because life has taught us no one else will have confidence in us. We're not insecure - we know how we're assessed.
posted by winna at 3:55 AM on August 1 [47 favorites]


'Yes', and 'Oh GOD yes' to sequence and winna.
posted by Salamander at 4:31 AM on August 1 [3 favorites]


Here we are with another thread that starts with the premise that men are like this and women are like that.

Interestingly, my wife said to me, in the wake of my latest work-induced anxiety (depressingly common trope for me): "You work like a woman." It wasn't an insult, but rather a reference to the confidence levels and behaviour patterns outlined in the piece.

I have to admit that to my chagrin, I do align with a lot of those behaviour patterns. I was raised with a lot of really strong women role models in my life, and I don't identify as female, but do identify with women much more so than men. I'm just glad that whatever my feelings are, I still get the advantages acrued by gender - these feelings and the pathetic-feeling need for nearly constant reassurance in a work context are unpleasant enough when I know that the deck is stacked for me. It would be sooooooo depressing if, like it is for women everywhere, I knew that it was actually stacked against me.
posted by smoke at 4:32 AM on August 1 [3 favorites]


The quiz shows me as having high confidence. I am not surprised. ;)

The crucial issue is that ". . . many girls learn to avoid taking risks and making mistakes." I think that is so true. Many of women my age, throughout our years in school and employment, never wanted to speak up, because they have been afraid of being wrong. The most important educational guide I received from my parents was that I should try to figure out the answer, feel comfortable if I erred, and resolve the error, rather than feel stupid and give up. I'm sad to say that many of the women I know had opposing life lessons, as detailed in the article.

As the parent of a 4 y.o. girl, I'm trying to give her the same life training. Of course it will be hard, considering the cultural sexism that concludes that girls and women as having perceived bossiness rather than confidence.
posted by miss tea at 4:33 AM on August 1 [5 favorites]


Interesting article, although it did tend to focus more on the innate/socialized differences between men and women and not so much on whether rewarding stereotypically male attitudes was really the best way to structure society. if "investments run by female hedge-fund managers outperform those run by male managers", then maybe it would be better for business to find a way to not put the overconfident male managers in charge of all the money.

And I fully agree with 7segment: "One's job as a scientist is to live and operate in a constant state of doubt". There is a mode of doing science that involves loud overconfident dudes brashly pursuing their lone genius theory in the face of all opposition (which, you know, sometimes works out brilliantly and often times not so much). But scientists also benefit from a lot of "feminine" traits like being sticklers for details, working with collaborators who are experts in other fields (and not assuming you know more than they do on their subject), constantly second-guessing your own ideas to look for problems, etc.

I guess what's needed is a mix of what this article is referring to as "confidence": you have to be confident enough to show up and attack the problem, and to stick with it when things inevitably get hard. But it's stupid to just go in assuming that you know, say, the population of a random US city, rather than going out and seeing what the evidence says. And it's also stupid to undervalue the contributions of thoughtful, thorough people like "Rebecca" in the article just because they would rather write a detail pro/con analysis than speak up in meetings. Someone has to keep coming up with the crazy new ideas (like "Robert"), but you also really need people who actually put in the hard work of seeing if any of those bold new ideas are worthwhile (and these more meticulous people often come up with brilliant ideas based on their intimate familiarity with the data in question). A sensible reward structure would realize these are complementary skills and value them more equally.
posted by puffyn at 4:38 AM on August 1 [6 favorites]


I've seen this in action the last couple of years, working on me.

I think I've been pretty lucky in that I've avoided prolonged situations that grind down my confidence for most of my life, although I can certainly think of incidents where I have been treated badly due to sexism.

But now there are some people in my life who--through work--who are the source of frequent, low-level diminishment. I'm talked over. I'm assumed to know much less than I actually do. I'm corrected for incredibly minor things, the way you might correct a child. I'm assumed to be afraid of bats, spiders, and mice and teased ("if you see one just scream"), despite never showing any indication of fearing such things; while the actual, real fear of male colleagues is forgotten. The way I take care of myself is constantly questioned.

None of it is overtly hostile or even that bad as an individual incident. It's just like a slow erosion. I started to feel down about myself before I noticed that my male colleagues weren't being treated the same way. God, it sucks. And even though I know it's probably sexism, I can't escape the nagging doubt that it's me--that there is something in the way I behave that is provoking it. I love my work but this is one thing I will not miss.

One of my male colleagues noticed I was being pushed to change a minor decision, and said, "you know you can just say no." And I was thinking, dude, I have been saying no for weeks.

Sigh.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 4:44 AM on August 1 [19 favorites]


This is starting to really annoy me. Confidence is useful in competing against other people who are overconfident, but it's bad for actually solving difficult problems. Disasters are caused by people being more confident than they should be, for whatever reason.

Oh, we understand the data well enough, we should go ahead with the Challenger launch. Oh, someone will figure out an alternative energy source. Oh, of course the climate's not changing, and I don't need to listen to your negativity. Oh, all religion is obviously for mindless sheep, so I don't need to know any more about it. Oh, prosperity will find a way to trickle down to the poor. Oh, they'll be fine. Oh, I know boys will be boys, no need to worry about a little rough speech. Oh, I'm not going to get sick, so I don't need insurance, and the rest of the world will take care of itself.

Rather than focusing on ways to make women more confident, I would be interested in research that looks at:
  • how to make the world (including businesses) more hospitable to those with reasonable doubts;
  • how to make men less confident, so they get better results over the long term;
  • how to make people comfortable with uncertainty, since we need to be aware of the limits of our knowledge to make better decisions;
  • what happens if "we don't know" is a legitimate, correct answer on standardized tests, so that admitting it is necessary for a high score.
Behavioral economics does address some of these points, but I haven't seen it connected to the "women are less confident than men" issue this way yet.

How's this for confidence: If men and women are different, why not tell men to change?
posted by amtho at 4:53 AM on August 1 [38 favorites]


Confidence is useful in competing against other people who are overconfident, but it's bad for actually solving difficult problems. Disasters are caused by people being more confident than they should be, for whatever reason.

amtho makes an important point. Confidence that one is always right is dangerous. But I do think that the article distinguishes between reasonable confidence and overconfidence.

1. Confidence stemming from education, research, testing, practical review, and ongoing assessment of conclusions is good.

2. Overconfidence stemming from internal ego that prevents ongoing assessment of conclusions is bad.

The distinguishing factor is someone who has made an erroneous conclusion and subsequently admits that new information has shown that prior error-- I think Hawking's admission regarding the Higgs Bosun is a good example. (Not that Hawking hasn't shown overconfidence in some areas, which I acknowledge.)
posted by miss tea at 5:25 AM on August 1 [3 favorites]


After taking that quiz, I really see why people are commenting about how confidence isn't always a good thing. I didn't see it as much in the article, but in the quiz it stands out.

I scored "medium confidence" and got the results page with tips to improve my confidence. Most of my low confidence answers, though, were about things I actually didn't know. Why should I have opinions about issues that I know I don't understand? Why should I be confident in a wild-ass guess?

Weirdly, though, my wild-ass guesses were correct, which I credit to basic reasoning and a little luck after that: "Statistically, he's most likely to have died close to the average age of death for an upper class man of the time period who didn't die by some disaster/illness I'd have heard about, and that's probably not as low as people think, and not as high as today..."

Is the takeaway that men are more likely to be confident in their reasoning, and are less likely to acknowledge that it's still a guess? But that's not confident behavior, that's overconfident behavior.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:40 AM on August 1 [6 favorites]


"what would a straight, white male do in this situation?"
As a straight, white male, I often wonder that. Perhaps if I knew the answer, I would have more confidence.
posted by MtDewd at 5:48 AM on August 1 [1 favorite]


Is the takeaway that men are more likely to be confident in their reasoning, and are less likely to acknowledge that it's still a guess? But that's not confident behavior, that's overconfident behavior.

There's a point at which it becomes overconfidence, certainly. But at least in the kinds of work I do, to be effective you have to be comfortable with using inadequate information to make decisions, with the confidence that you will be able to solve the inevitable problems that happen as a result. Excessive caution (or lack of confidence, in the article's terms) means not being able to act in the first place. All of our major projects have a very predictable set of key decision points, all of which happen without the certainty you would really want to have.

what would a straight, white male do in this situation?"

That's a good starting point, one that my partner and I use frequently in discussions. But the reality is that if you aren't actually that white guy, just imitating him isn't going to get you the same results. From the article:

Yes, women suffer consequences for their lack of confidence—but when they do behave assertively, they may suffer a whole other set of consequences, ones that men don’t typically experience. Attitudes toward women are changing, and for the better, but a host of troubling research shows that they can still pay a heavier social and even professional penalty than men do for acting in a way that’s seen as aggressive. If a woman walks into her boss’s office with unsolicited opinions, speaks up first at meetings, or gives business advice above her pay grade, she risks being disliked or even—let’s be blunt—being labeled a bitch. The more a woman succeeds, the worse the vitriol seems to get.

So you have to start with "what does the white guy do?" which gives the sideboards of possibilities and maybe access to some second-hand entitlement, and then carry that to the question of what is going to be effective in that situation.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:58 AM on August 1 [6 favorites]


You need to be insanely confident to pursue a career in science. At the age of 18 you are looking at 18 to 20 years to have a tenured (or equivalent) job paying you about you'd make in 4 years if you majored in comp sci or EE and took a job at Google or Facebook -- and the odds of getting that 18-to-20 year payoff are well under 50%.
posted by MattD at 6:01 AM on August 1 [2 favorites]


Relevant: Jessica Valenti's response. From her article:

But the "confidence gap" is not a personal defect as much as it is a reflection of a culture that gives women no reason to feel self-assured.

In girlhood, starkly-divided toy aisles teach us that engineering, electronics and science toys are for boys, that the futures for which we should be preparing are those of the Barbie Dream House variety. Adolescent girls - especially girls of color - are given less teacher attention in the classroom than their male peers. A full 56% of female students report being sexually harassed. Sexual assault on college campuses is rampant and goes largely unpunished, women can barely walk down the street without fear of harassment, and we make up the majority of American adults in poverty.

posted by Librarypt at 6:08 AM on August 1 [6 favorites]


Why should I have opinions about issues that I know I don't understand? Why should I be confident in a wild-ass guess?

Because the thing about wild ass guesses, is that do a high degree, they aren't really wild, but fairly educated and reasoned. And if the stakes are low, who cares if it is a guess ?
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 6:11 AM on August 1


> self-confidence is the very last personality trait you want to see represented in a prospective scientist. One's job as a scientist is to live and operate in a constant state of doubt and to question one's assumptions upon every single occasion anything comes to light which might remotely challenge same.

As a female scientist who had the enormous fortune of being raised to be very self-confident, I feel there is a HUGE difference between confidence in one's abilities and certainty in one's beliefs. I definitely lack the latter: I look for holes to poke everywhere -- in my knowledge, in my assumptions, in my results -- trying to find the things I might have missed. I look for holes to poke in the work of others, too, and I expect -- demand, even -- that my peers and students to do the same to me. However, there is no question in my mind that I am capable of doing these things, that when I say "huh, that's... huh?" it's not because I'm too weak or stupid or incompetent to know the answer, but because the problem is hard and by gum we are going to get to the bottom of it.

In my profile, I list my occupation as "making mistakes as fast as I can." It's a tip-of-the-hat to something the [extremely self-confident] physicist John Wheeler said in interviews and to his students: that the whole enterprise of theoretical physics was to make mistakes, and that the good ones make more mistakes faster than anyone else. Being open to getting things wrong is absolutely necessary in a scientist, but one needs to have a metric buttload of self-confidence to be willing to be wrong. And because women are judged more harshly when we are wrong, it requires a much higher level of self-confidence to take the risk, and any self-confidence is much harder to achieve.
posted by Westringia F. at 6:17 AM on August 1 [25 favorites]


If a woman walks into her boss’s office with unsolicited opinions, speaks up first at meetings, or gives business advice above her pay grade, she risks being disliked or even—let’s be blunt—being labeled a bitch. The more a woman succeeds, the worse the vitriol seems to get.

Yes, if you have a career in a STEM field and you're a woman, people are going to hate you, be cruel and dismissive, and actively work to suborn your efforts. Men and women both. Women are not supposed to be authoritative, data-driven and expert in making assessments on sometimes not a lot of data.

I am comfortable being hated - I'm a weirdo and it's what I've known my whole life. But for women who are not used to walking into every interpersonal encounter with the certainty that the other person actively wants you to be diminished, it is crushing.

Even with me being used to moderate to severe loathing it still gets depressing after a while.
posted by winna at 6:40 AM on August 1 [10 favorites]


Because the thing about wild ass guesses, is that do a high degree, they aren't really wild, but fairly educated and reasoned. And if the stakes are low, who cares if it is a guess ?

If you get used to making wild guesses, and being mostly correct enough, you start to feel like that's a good thing. Then, when the stakes are higher, you're more likely to feel like "guesses" are close enough. It's difficult to adjust, especially if there's a lot of pressure to "just do something" and to seem confident (or else you're obviously not leadership material and nobody will listen to you).

The article says: "We don’t answer questions until we are totally sure of the answer, we don’t submit a report until we’ve edited it ad nauseam..." -- these are things I wish everyone would do. Are there too few "answers" out there about which people are sort-of sure? Are there too few half-edited reports?

We as a civilization are facing huge, difficult issues, which seem impossible to solve. It's time to bring our best to solving them. We can't expect to prevail if we're almost universally subject to various game-like political, corporate, and even academic cultures in which confidence is rewarded because it seems too difficult to discern actual competence.
posted by amtho at 6:43 AM on August 1 [7 favorites]


My point, to the extent I have one, is that yes, it makes sense for women to learn to seem more confident in some contexts, just to get an attentive audience and some power.

However, it's even more important to overcome this seemingly universal human subjugation to those who seem like they should be in charge. We have more tools than ever before to do this, but overcoming the tendency to value confidence will require clever, strong, and unrelenting effort. I've read a number of articles about women's underconfidence, and methods for overcoming that; great, but I've read no articles about how to give more prominence to uncertainty.
posted by amtho at 6:50 AM on August 1 [4 favorites]


I thought the article really did a good job of delving below the surface of the confidence gap. I love that they acknowledged that there was this dark thing that they couldn't quite figure out when talking to high achieving women. I think they are doing much more than other similar articles which gloss over the real dis-encentives that women experience when asserting themselves.

I've had an interesting experience the last year as I've switched career tracks. I have both needed to be very confident in my abilities while acknowledging to people that I'm in a switch, there's things that I'm learning but I'm confident that I bring these other traits. What has helped enormously is that I had a safety net, my husband already earning enough to cover all our basics meant that no single job was dire. It was the most male I think I've ever felt - with backup, I could be confident and take a risk.

Now I'm in the job and have felt hemmed in by some of the same tired bullshit. Even got pulled aside to have a discussion about my tone. I'm too direct, too assertive, too willing to to challenge. Though I feel like I wouldn't have to push so hard if I was a guy. I feel like women have to push more to be heard, do harder work to back up their opinions and are just as likely to be dismissed in the same breath that someone says, "you're right."

But this is the story of my life. I'm not so good at being a good woman and never have been. However, I learned something from this article which was that I was playing the "overconfident" role when interviewing. I was able to also be true to myself and be open about my whole skillset. I felt that it would only be a good thing to be honest with confidence in the face of this career shift. It felt like a blend of the best tendencies of male and female and it was exhilarating.
posted by amanda at 6:51 AM on August 1 [5 favorites]


Women are not supposed to be authoritative, data-driven and expert in making assessments on sometimes not a lot of data.

Not sure this is really restricted to certain industries. I think people tend to be more overt about it in STEM--maybe it's a lack of social skills--but I've seen women hit brick walls in pretty much anything when they attempt to cross over from basic competence into actually being any kind of an authority on anything. Not every woman, but more than enough that the exceptions just seem like lucky breaks.
posted by Sequence at 7:08 AM on August 1 [4 favorites]


There's a point at which it becomes overconfidence, certainly. But at least in the kinds of work I do, to be effective you have to be comfortable with using inadequate information to make decisions, with the confidence that you will be able to solve the inevitable problems that happen as a result.

Note that I was discussing a quiz in which you're asked to guess the age of death of a famous person, and then asked to rate your confidence in the answer.

I was not asked how I would solve a problem with inadequate information; if I was in that position and gathering more information before making the decision was not possible, I would have no problem proceeding based on the information I did have. In fact, I do that all the time. (I am a graduate student and a researcher.) I would not be full of overconfidence--"oh yeah, I am extremely confident that this is the way to go"--because that is simply misrepresenting reality and leads to bad planning.

There is a difference between making a good decision and making the right decision. Likewise, there's a difference between making a good guess and making the right guess. The quiz punishes you for making the distinction but it is a smart distinction to make. I made a good guess, but gave my answer a low confidence rating because the chance that it was the right guess seemed fairly low; ages of death are very variable.

Because the thing about wild ass guesses, is that do a high degree, they aren't really wild, but fairly educated and reasoned. And if the stakes are low, who cares if it is a guess ?

For one thing, the stakes aren't always low. For another, educated guesses are still just guesses and are often wrong, and it is wise to acknowledge that you could be wrong.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:15 AM on August 1 [6 favorites]


I think people tend to be more overt about it in STEM--maybe it's a lack of social skills--but I've seen women hit brick walls in pretty much anything when they attempt to cross over from basic competence into actually being any kind of an authority on anything. Not every woman, but more than enough that the exceptions just seem like lucky breaks.

I've noticed tech companies have a nasty tendency to sort women into "one of the best in the field and her gender is irrelevant" or "dead weight here to push up the diversity quota" - every woman programmer with over 5 years experience that I've met was considered either top 10% or bottom 10% by her peers, with perhaps one exception.

It's a super unhelpful and/or unconsciously obstructive cultural mindset (possibly because programming teams so easily fall into the IQ-dick-measuring trap) that I've tried to train out of myself, but the field really just has a problem with letting women be 50th percentile developers. If anyone has suggestions on how a dude can help combat that, I'd love to hear them.
posted by Ryvar at 7:36 AM on August 1 [16 favorites]


There is a difference between making a good decision and making the right decision. Likewise, there's a difference between making a good guess and making the right guess. The quiz punishes you for making the distinction but it is a smart distinction to make. I made a good guess, but gave my answer a low confidence rating because the chance that it was the right guess seemed fairly low; ages of death are very variable.

I'm not sure that's quite how the quiz is working. I googled after I was done and my answers were mostly wildly wrong, but I gave low confidence to the wrongest ones and high confidence to the correct ones, and I think that was rewarded in the scoring. If I'm understanding it correctly, the quiz is explicitly not making the good vs right distinction you suggest (and in real life I agree that it is an important distinction) but instead is looking at the relationship of correctness and confidence.

In practical terms I'm always having to essentially put error bars on decisions. It's rarely as purely quantitative as actual error bars; it's mostly qualitative descriptions of the basis for decisions and risk mitigation in things like environmental permits and stakeholder meetings. The perfection issue that the article talks about (and that came up in the tips section after taking the quiz) would get in the way of what has been developed as a process of making a decision with poor information and knowing that you will be at least partially wrong, and then working to fix that, also with poor information and inadequate resources.

The structural questions seem to be to be double and almost mirror images of each other: first, the mechanisms by which women are socialized in ways that don't develop confidence in this very narrow way that is rewarded in the modern workplace; and second, how the modern workplace has been developed to specifically reward one very narrow type of confidence that is the most stereotypically "male." Just as one can imagine socializing women differently so as to nurture this one kind of confidence, one could imagine different workplaces (such as a very different environmental permitting process, to follow on the example I was using above) that rewarded exactly the kinds of confidence that women are currently socialized towards -- that rewards exactly the good/right distinction, say.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:59 AM on August 1 [1 favorite]


So you have to start with "what does the white guy do?" which gives the sideboards of possibilities and maybe access to some second-hand entitlement, and then carry that to the question of what is going to be effective in that situation.

Yeah, I agree. It's mainly useful, as you said, for figuring out that there are possibilities beyond what you would normally do. (It's also an individual solution to a social problem, with all the attendant shortcomings those usually have.)

I totally get the point about the double bind, though. One missing piece of the puzzle here would seem to be something like diversity training for bosses and hiring committees to train them out of their shitty knee-jerk reactions to assertive women.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:36 AM on August 1


If I'm understanding it correctly, the quiz is explicitly not making the good vs right distinction you suggest (and in real life I agree that it is an important distinction) but instead is looking at the relationship of correctness and confidence.

DipFlash, I think you are exactly correct. The quiz isn't giving you a value based assessment, it's attempting to assess your raw "confidence" completely unrelated to whether you are right or wrong or making any kind of good decision. Which is the precise kind of "confidence" that is sub-consciously (mostly) rewarded in modern business. It's lazy is what it is. 'White male' is short-hand for: good enough to go. Everyone else requires too much thinking.

--

I've been thinking a lot about gender and positive feedback loops. You do X, X gets rewarded, you do more X. Even if X is bad, dumb, ill-timed, ill-thought out, bad for America, etc.. So, little girls: you like pink? You like dollies? Guess what? The world is ready to shower you with pink and dollies! You're a boy who likes pink? Crickets.

If boys have a certain affinity for memorization, extended hyper-focus and testosterone surges, perhaps they will enjoy video games? They have the power to create an entire marketplace that caters to memorization, extended hyper-focus and testosterone surges. Positive feedback loop + economic power creates a world that caters to men and their affinities. But then, as the article suggests, you can take this line of thinking and start down a path to a bad place. A place where people can say, men are this and women are like that and that's the end of the story.

But, I digress.
posted by amanda at 8:43 AM on August 1 [2 favorites]


self-confidence is the very last personality trait you want to see represented in a prospective scientist

A good friend of mine and I talked about this a lot during our grad school years. We were always reading, and hearing from the few female professors we knew, that women just needed to have more confidence -- get out in front, speak up, etc., etc. And maybe that's true. But meanwhile there were quite a few men we knew doing that who were bad scientists because of it -- they were always ready to commit to an interpretation of the data, to be confident about the way forward, to tell everyone else what it all meant. And often they were wrong, and led other people into pointless work because of it. Often what they should have been saying was, "I'm going back into the lab and I'll tell you more about what I think this means in a week." But most of the hyper-confident people I knew were successful in graduate school, and are successful now.

Obviously there's a middle ground between hubris and being too afraid to share your achievements with anyone. But I always was uncomfortable with being constantly exhorted to get more confidence when from my perspective it was over-confidence that was causing the biggest problems in the research going on around me.
posted by gerstle at 9:05 AM on August 1 [8 favorites]


If I'm understanding it correctly, the quiz is explicitly not making the good vs right distinction you suggest (and in real life I agree that it is an important distinction) but instead is looking at the relationship of correctness and confidence.

I can't tell if you understood my point or not, because I didn't suggest the quiz is making that distinction; I said that the scoring punishes you for making that distinction. If you're confident in your decision-making process, but not confident in the outcome, there is no way for the quiz to know. Instead it lumps both into one confidence rating.

In order to avoid the quiz suggesting that you "fix" your confidence, you need to be confident in the outcome (or at least not guess correctly). However, this is pretty clearly unreasonable to me when you're just guessing something. In fact, there is evidence that sometimes less confidence and more caution is better, which is what many of the people in the thread have pointed out, and that you have noticed as well.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:17 AM on August 1 [1 favorite]


That lack of distinction between "good" (or sound) and "right" bothered me about the quiz too, although less on the "guess the answer" questions than on the last one, which asked you to choose between two options:
  • It is better to have definite opinions about lots of things
  • It is better to remain neutral on most issues
This really bothered me, because lack of rigidity is emphatically not the same as being neutral. There was no room there to prefer to have opinions that weren't definite, ie, to prefer to duly contemplate things, arriving at a conclusion yet remaining open to considering meritorious alternatives. But the way it's posed, if you didn't have a Definite Opinion, the only option was ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I bounced back and forth on my answer to this one before backtracking from the quiz in annoyance that there wasn't the appropriate alternative:
  • It is better to overthink everything (including plates of beans).
posted by Westringia F. at 10:10 AM on August 1


Often what they should have been saying was, "I'm going back into the lab and I'll tell you more about what I think this means in a week."

When I think of the people I consider confident, that is usually the kind of attitude I think of and try to model. Being confident in what you know enough to admit to the unknowns is owning your own understanding. But I know that is a somewhat idiosyncratic definition.
posted by winna at 10:22 AM on August 1 [1 favorite]


I've noticed tech companies have a nasty tendency to sort women into "one of the best in the field and her gender is irrelevant" or "dead weight here to push up the diversity quota" - every woman programmer with over 5 years experience that I've met was considered either top 10% or bottom 10% by her peers, with perhaps one exception.

It's a super unhelpful and/or unconsciously obstructive cultural mindset (possibly because programming teams so easily fall into the IQ-dick-measuring trap) that I've tried to train out of myself, but the field really just has a problem with letting women be 50th percentile developers. If anyone has suggestions on how a dude can help combat that, I'd love to hear them.


You are doing your female coworkers a lot of good by understanding that this is a problem and working on yourself to think differently. Thank you for doing that. That's going to make your workplace less dysfunctional.

The worst form of sexism in IT (and perhaps anywhere) is the pernicious, perhaps largely subconscious belief that women are just not as capable as men. That manifests in all sorts of subtle behavior that is very destructive, but hard to point out because it is so easily rationalized. In the case you brought up, I'm thinking of hypercriticism, but that's one out of many ways that this can manifest. Just to illustrate this with a hypothetical example, it's not easy to spot until you see that there's a trend of folks who are more critical of Celine than Greg or Eric, even though they are pretty equally skilled programmers and valuable employees. And it's not just Celine. They are more critical of the female programmers in general.

If you are in a position to do so and you feel comfortable doing it, consider being an advocate by (thoughtfully, diplomatically) pointing out how someone is being treated unfairly. In the hypothetical example above, these folks are going to be a lot less able to hear this from Celine because they are already devaluing her. They need to hear it from someone else.

If you are in a position to bring this person on to an interesting project that will help them grow their skills, and you know they are up to the task, please do so. They are likely getting fewer of these opportunities, as well as getting their ideas for new projects shot down more often, because of the subtle, pernicious sexism.
posted by jazzbaby at 10:22 AM on August 1 [2 favorites]


Where did the article go? Even their own index takes me to an “Oops!” page.
posted by scamper at 11:03 AM on August 1


Ha - I got 'middling' confidence on the quiz and based on my experience as well as people's assessment of me, I think that's - well, wrong. I feel I'm a very confident person, and have been told throughout my life that this is how I'm seen by others as well. But in my mind, there's a big difference between feeling confident in my worth and competence and feeling confident that my opinions are correct.

To the questions about whether I have opinions, yes, I have them, definitely. Do I think it's a good thing to always express those opinions? Not at all. Actually, to me, that's a sign of true confidence - that I don't need to have my opinions validated by others around me, but am happy for others to believe whatever they want while I do the same.
posted by widdershins at 11:24 AM on August 1


For another illustration of what I'm talking about (as well as how women are perceived when they push back), check out the Ping Pong Theory of Tech Sexism.
posted by jazzbaby at 12:10 PM on August 1


Confidence is not the root problem. Framing it as the root problem might do more harm than good, particularly when you ignore structural reasons for why a lack of confidence might be entirely reasonable.

Yes, confidence involves courage and persistence, regardless of gender. But men can persist through failure more easily because their failures are not made to represent their gender. They enjoy more immediate benefits from success and suffer fewer penalties for failure (see the recent FPP about women of color, family, and careers). Women, meanwhile, experience real and substantial harm by behaving the same way. I doubt men would behave as confidently if they received regular death threats and rape threats for doing so. The central unanswered question isn’t “how do we make women more confident?” It’s “why do so many individuals and institutions harshly oppose women’s confidence?”

Kay and Shipman's edification of confidence rings hollow to me when they remain silent on homophobia, classism, and racism, while only mentioning sexism long enough to discount its influence:

So confident women find themselves in a catch-22. For now, though, for Rebecca and for most women, coming across as too confident is not the problem.

This contradicts the inclusion of the Rebecca/Robert example entirely. If Rebecca cannot pursue confidence the way men do, then a lack of confidence by itself is not a satisfying cause for inequality. Something else is involved.

The bottom line: women require much more courage to achieve the same result as men, and that's the subject worth discussing. If women are leery of this increased risk, at least accept that they have reason to be. Women don’t have overactive amygdalas. Women aren’t shocked that the grown-up world isn’t like grade-school. They are responding logically to a system that opposes their achievement. Instead of encouraging herculean effort among working women, why not examine why we require such effort in the first place? If we reduce structural oppression to some character flaw of the oppressed--hysteria? emotionality? a lack of confidence?--we aren't doing women a favor.
posted by Avarith at 1:10 PM on August 1 [10 favorites]


Argh. Why is the perspective on this "women need to do this, women shouldn't do that"?

The take away from these kinds of studies needs to be, "Hey idiots! Women in our culture are undervalued and men are overvalued*. There is PROFIT to be made by getting this right. You are leaving money on the table here."

(*In some circumstances. It's not universal. Figuring out where it does and doesn't happen is where you make your money.)
posted by straight at 3:34 PM on August 1 [3 favorites]


I'm quite a bit older than the women who wrote this piece (and probably most of the commenters here) and I think that this
"women now earn more college and graduate degrees than men do"
is more a bug than a feature. Learning how to please professors, teachers and assorted authority figures doesn't build confidence and self-reliance as much as those teachers/profs/people-in-charge think it does. Following the rules, the syllabus, the instructions doesn't always result in mastery of the skill, the situation or yourself.
Education isn't always accompanied by a diploma or capital letters in front of your name. I think young women have been told that if they do all the Things set down in the lesson plan for life, success will follow. And based on results, that's just not so. People gain confidence by doing something, sometimes over and over and over again until they figure it out. Women, especially, are told that it's okay to mess up, to fail, but not very often are they told to try it again. If they can't do something perfectly, they very often don't pursue it. And that's a shame. Everyone needs the chance to go forth and fuck up. Repeat as necessary.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:37 PM on August 2 [5 favorites]


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