*Let me begin by saying I love men, and I want them to feel confident. This post is not an attack on male confidence at all. Rather, it’s a look at the differences between male and female confidence. It is also full of generalizations. To be sure, not all men have superhero confidence, and not all women lack it.
Also, the graphics in this post are meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Now, let us continue.
Last week, the stark contrast of male and female confidence was made evident as two of my clients (one man, one woman) prepared for their dissertation defenses. The dissertation defense is the process of presenting research to a committee of (usually three) PhDs, listening to their critiques, and then defending your work (and yourself). It is the final stage of many years of doctoral study. Failing the final dissertation defense would be tragic, so it’s normal to stress a bit beforehand.
After nearly five years of coaching students through their final defenses, it has become clear to me that levels of pre-defense stress are not equally distributed between men and women. My female clients get far more stressed out and anxious than my male clients.
A Tale of Two PhD Candidates
Case in point: Both clients were scheduled to defend last week, and both had known about their scheduled defense for months. The woman’s defense was on Thursday, and the man’s was on Friday. I spent a lot of time working with my female client, prepping her, answering her questions, reviewing the PowerPoint presentation she would use during the defense. She had studied her work every night during the previous month, searching for holes in her own research, trying to anticipate every possible question her committee members might toss at her. I knew she would nail it. I’ve never had a client who didn’t nail it – but this lady was Prepared (with a capital P).
The evening before her defense, we had a quick phone call and I was concerned by how much fear I could hear in my client’s voice. I assured her she was going to do awesome and asked what she was so anxious about. She told me she was worried she hadn’t prepared enough, that she should have spent more time studying. She shared her fears with me, describing the total disaster that would become of her career if she screwed this up, as everything was riding on obtaining her PhD.
I talked her down from the ledge, and I’m happy to report that the following day, she kicked ass. All the worry, the fear, the panic… was for nothing. None of the things she was worried about happened.
Then… there was my male client. Thursday afternoon I reached out to him to see if he wanted to chat about his defense, which was scheduled for the following morning. His response (via email) was “sure.” We had a five minute conversation that evening that mostly consisted of him complaining about his chair’s lack of competence. I asked him if he felt prepared and his response was, “yeah, I read through it again last week as a refresher. I’ll be fine.” His confidence, in the face of what appeared to be a lack of preparation, was sort of… enviable. The next morning, at 9am, he called to tell me he didn’t have a final defense presentation put together. He said he didn’t realize he needed one until his chair emailed him that morning, asking him to send it over. His defense was scheduled at 10 – thus, he needed me to help him, as he put it, “throw something together.”
Throw something together?!? Long story short, I helped him and we were able to finish creating the presentation 10 minutes before his scheduled defense. That gave him just enough time to quickly click through the slides once, and then he was off. I called right before his defense to make sure everything was set, and his calmness literally blew my mind. “Yep, all good over here. Thanks for your help this morning, I really appreciate it!”
I was nervous as I hung up the phone. Was he going to be my first client to fail his defense? How did he not know he needed a PowerPoint for his defense presentation?
An hour later, he texted me. “Went great! Thanks a million. You saved my butt this morning. I’m now Dr. ___!”
Of course I was relieved. I congratulated him and wiped the sweat from my brow. And then I thought back to my female client from the previous day. How was it that a woman who was SO prepared could feel so unconfident before her defense, while my male client literally threw something together an hour before his …and didn’t seem to have a worry in the world?
The stark contrast between the confidence demonstrated by these two clients mirrors the general trends in male and female confidence I’ve observed among my clients. Usually, my male clients are highly confident, and my female clients worry, feel unprepared, and use negative words to describe themselves and their abilities (“I’m so dumb” or “I’m not qualified to have a PhD”). I have never had a male client who spoke disparagingly of his intellect or questioned whether he deserved a PhD. Never. But among my female clients? Negative self-talk is commonplace.
When my my male clients graduate, they always seem to feel deserving of the new letters they get to put behind their names. My female clients, on the other hand, often express disbelief when they graduate. As if they made it to the doctoral finish line through luck, or because they just happened to meet the right people, or have the right doors open, or have the right person to help them. In her book, Lean In, Cheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, talks at length about the phenomenon of women discounting, and even apologizing, for their own accomplishments. Really, what’s up with that? Why do women feel the need to qualify their successes, as if they just got lucky or don’t really deserve them?
Remember, my clients are highly educated PhD candidates! These people are hardly intellectual runts. They’re a driven, capable, smart bunch – and while the confidence levels of my male clients generally reflects this reality, I can’t say the same about the confidence of my female clients.
And these differences aren’t limited to higher education or the boardroom – they begin during childhood and seem to proliferate throughout life. There are certainly genetic and biological differences between males and females that contribute to this confidence gap, so first, let’s address that.
Neuroscientists have begun to isolate a group of genes that affect confidence and anxiety – these genes regulate one’s levels of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. Higher levels of these serotonin and dopamine are associated with higher levels of confidence. Women produce 52% less serotonin than men and are more prone to anxiety than the men with the same genetic variations. Similar tendencies can be seen as applied to dopamine-receptor genes. Generally speaking, women are more biologically prone to worry and anxiety than men. This tendency to experience worry and anxiety is what stops women from taking action!
And action is main ingredient of confidence.
So yes, your genetic wiring for confidence is based on variants in serotonin- and dopamine-receptor genes. HOWEVER… that’s not the whole story. Bear with me while I get even more geeky and researcher-y over here.
In 2009, researchers in London reported on a study of confidence among identical twins. Because identical twins have, well, identical genetics, they are often used in studies designed to explore the different effects of genetics and social/cultural conditioning (that is, nature versus nurture). Participants included over 3,700 pairs of twins between the ages of 7 and 10. The researchers had the kids rate their self-perceived abilities in different school subjects. In response to the question, “How good do you think you are (e.g. in English, Mathematics…)?” the researchers found that about 50% of the children’s confidence was due to nature (genes) and about 50% was due to nurture (environments).
However, the study’s lead researcher reported that these genetic differences in confidence were “probabilistic” rather than “deterministic.” That is, even if someone lacks a genetic powerhouse of confidence, they can still alter their confidence.
Confidence is not genetically fixed.
In another study, researchers examined the cultural (nurture) differences in self-esteem among a large of sample of individuals around the world (48 countries were represented). Across the sample, the researchers noted significantly higher levels of self-esteem among males. But rather than assume genetic differences, the researchers were able to associate the male/female self-esteem differences with cultural and social differences such as socioeconomics, sociodemographics, gender-equality, and cultural value indicators.
The differences between male and female confidence are dramatic, and of course, largely the product of social conditioning and cultural norms. And, these differences seem to have a lot to do with something I discussed in my last post on the confidence crisis among women: confidence is contingent upon action. The best way to foster confidence is to take action.
Boys are taught to be action-oriented from a young age. Risk-taking is encouraged. Metaphorically and literally, boys epitomize action. Little girls, on the other hand, do not; they are taught to be obedient, to keep quiet, have manners, and take up as little space as possible. When women speak up, they risk being labeled as bossy (bad quality). When men speak up, they are dominant or masculine (good qualities). When women take risks, they are reckless (bad quality); when men take risks, they are bold (good quality). Little girls are coddled and told they are delicate. Little boys are expected to get scraped up, rough house, and play hard.
Likely, if you think back to classroom environments at any level of schooling, you remember that boys were much more likely to speak up than girls. Girls were more likely to raise their hands and wait for their turn while boys blurted out answers and cut in line. To be clear, I am by no means dumping on men here – I just want to point out some of the factors that contribute to the confidence gap.
Women Who Don’t Give a Crap
So we know there are sex-related biological differences and gender-related social differences that contribute to the confidence gap between men and women. These factors help explain why the gap exists, but it is also clear that this gap is far from fixed. Indeed, women have the ability to possess the same kickass confidence that men often have.
Consider, if you will, women who work in the male-dominated fields of the hard sciences. In her book, The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science is Still a Boys’ Club, Eileen Pollack, one of the first two women to major in physics at Yale University, described the institutional and social barriers she faced in a field overwhelmingly dominated by men. Ultimately, Pollack dropped out – but many years later, she interviewed Yale’s first female Chair in the physics department, Dr. Meg Urry, to understand how women develop the confidence they need compete in male-dominated professions. Urry explained that confidence is something that can be developed. Even if you’re not innately confident, and even if you’re a women whose confidence has been hammered down by social and cultural conditioning, Urry believes, “you can grow the boldness you need to be a good scientist.”
In that same book, Pollack interviewed a group of female physics students at Yale and asked them how they nurtured such boldness and confidence.
“Oh, that’s easy,” they explained, “we’re the women who don’t give a crap…about what people expect us to do. Or not do.” For these women, success was the result of the willingness to ignore unwritten expectations in their field and what it takes for a woman to become a successful scientist.
That propensity to act and take risks is a quality mostly observed in men. If ladies want to experience more self-confidence, they need to start taking more action.
This Doesn’t Mean You Should “Act Like a Man”
Men and women are wired differently. As men and women often express love, kindness, and anger differently, they also express confidence differently. By nature, women have softer voices than men, are smaller in stature, and are often more nurturing and sensitive. A confident woman can embrace all of the things that make her a gentle, nurturing woman while also possessing the fierce confidence of a lioness. Women often get this twisted, especially in corporate settings. I wrote about this briefly in my other blog – here is an excerpt from my post, Women who believe in themselves are f*%@ing unstoppable:
Not having a Y chromosome does not mean we are lacking in any way, but that our strengths are often different from those that men possess. Thus, certainly, we don’t ever need to act like a man to accomplish the things we set out to. You don’t need to “man up” or “grow a pair” to take on a challenge. You don’t need to raise your voice or intimidate others. There’s a tendency, especially in business, for women to (perhaps unwittingly) to take on masculine behaviors to climb the corporate ladder. During business negotiations with men, I think a lot of women feel compelled to mimic male behaviors, but ladies, if only you understood the power of femininity, you would never again feel like you had to “act like a man” to get ahead. Indeed, being a woman is one of your greatest assets.
I believe this fervently and it sort of bums me out when I see women emulating the aggressive behaviors of dominant men because they believe that’s how they need to act in order to be taken seriously. As a politician, Hilary Clinton did this a lot on the 2016 presidential campaign trail. Politics totally aside, I’m referring only to her mannerisms while campaigning – particularly her tendency to shout and speak in an unnaturally low voice.
To demonstrate the confidence and competence of a leader, a woman does not need to act like a man. Meghan Markle’s speech at UN Women provides a breathtakingly beautiful display of powerful, feminine leadership. I also adore her blotchy chest during this speech because, to me, it shows just how far she had to step outside of her comfort zone during that speech. She was nervous, but she remained poised and in control. And she took action.
Look, if you are naturally a loud-talking, aggressive woman, and that’s how you authentically demonstrate confidence – go for it! But I don’t think that’s the case for most women, and trying to act masculine in an attempt to feign confidence is a terrible idea if you’re not a naturally masculine or dominant woman. As women, we need to see that there is a unique feminine expression of confidence that is available to us when we take action and act authentically. You can wear your stilettos and paint on a red lip while commanding respect and displaying confidence that even Beyonce would give a head nod to.
Women have biological and social odds stacked against them in the confidence game, but they can also overcome those odds by consistently following one simple mantra: Take action.