Numerous studies have shown that women are less self-assured than men. Qualified or not, men just seem to exude an air of confidence in themselves and their abilities. Yet even accomplished, highly qualified women struggle at times with confidence and seem to instead live in a perpetual state of questioning themselves. It’s a real head scratcher. And it’s a partial contributor to the woeful representation of women in leadership positions as laid out in The Confidence Gap. When you lack internal confidence, you are less likely to stretch yourself for potential opportunities, less likely to naturally see yourself succeeding in challenging roles and less likely to push for what you deserve. In the book, “The Confidence Code” it is reported that women will apply for a job if they meet 100% of the stated criteria, yet men will apply if they meet as little as 60% of the criteria.
Why? Why do women feel they should not apply unless they meet all criteria while men barely give it a thought? Over the years I’ve coached many executives, both male and female. I recall one highly qualified VP level client in particular who voluntarily waited for a promotion to the C-suite until she had more experience. It’s hard to imagine a man turning down a promotion because he didn’t think he wasn’t qualified enough. Further, I’ve worked with women who look to be very confident yet become riddled with self-doubt when asking for a pay raise or going on a new job interview. In terms of confidence, men seem to be consistent while women’s confidence level seems to be fragile and shaky. Again, why?
It’s In The Way We Think
All of us are susceptible to literally hundreds of cognitive biases. One such bias is called the self-serving bias, also known as the positivity bias and the attribution error. This is a process by which an individual distorts their perception of reality or ignores negative feedback in order to maintain their ego. Here’s how it works. We, as individuals, tend to place blame for our failure on external, uncontrollable factors (e.g., time constraints) BUT attribute our success to internal factors (e.g., intelligence). Due to an inherent need to view ourselves positively, we all exhibit this bias to a certain degree. And some level of the bias is good because it serves to protect our self-esteem. Research has found that people who suffer from depression or anxiety (twice as likely in women) often exhibit low levels of this bias. But too much of the bias is not healthy either, such as we see in narcissistic/self-aggrandizing (much more common in men) individuals.
Long term studies have found that how much of the bias people show differs by culture, age and gender. The Asian culture exhibits the least positivity bias. Very young and very old people display the bias more than the in-between ages. And, men tend to show more of the self-serving bias than women. Boys and girls show the bias essentially to an equal degree until about age 7. But after that, boys continue to increase in this bias. Girls stay about the same and increase somewhat over time but never to the extent that men do. In other words, adolescent girls and adult women who experience less of this bias do not get the same protection to their self-esteem as men do. This is not a conscious process intentionally chosen by men or women. The difference just seems to develop, most likely because of the different norms, social cues and experiences of each gender.
The Impact of Differences in Attribution
Let’s look at how this self-serving bias impacts the thought process of a man vs. a woman. Before I start, let me make clear that these thought patterns obviously do not apply to every man or every woman. That is, there will be some women who think more like the male pattern and some men who think more like the female pattern. But on average this holds true.
Illustration 1: Man Succeeds
In Illustration 1, when a man succeeds such as through achieving a particular milestone or landing a new job, his thought process will tend to emphasize his internal characteristics with thoughts such as “I knew I could do this” or “I’m really smart.” He believes he is the one who created the success and therefore feels totally deserved of whatever praise he gets or potentially something even better. He then internalizes success as being due to his very nature, and feels awesome, all adding to his sense of worth.
Illustration 2: Woman Succeeds
In Illustration 2, on the other hand, where a woman achieves the same success she is more likely to attribute it to external factors. Rather than viewing the success as innately driven by her value and abilities, she will think about all the help she had or how lucky she got. She feels good but in a cautious way. The success becomes internalizes as largely due to something outside of herself that she has no control over. She walks away happy but unsure that her success will continue in the future.
Illustration 3: Man Fails
In illustration 3, we can see potential thoughts associated with failure. When a man fails he tends to view his failure as a result of outside forces. He may have thoughts such as, “there just wasn’t enough time” or “I didn’t have the help that I needed.” He is more likely to think that others or something in the external world needed to be different in order for him to have been successful. As a result, he doesn’t take a direct hit to his self-esteem. He may be upset about the failure, but thoughts of it being due to something inherently within him sort of just roll off his back. Hence, even in failure he ends up feeling pretty good about himself and his abilities.
Illustration 4: Woman Fails
In illustration 4 we see that for women, thoughts about failure tend to weigh more heavily towards internal flaws. She may have thoughts such as, “I’m not smart enough” or “I’m just not good enough for this.” This leads to feelings of deflation and is a major hit to her self-esteem. She will consider all the ways she needs to be different and all the things she needs to do to improve. Because she views the failure as an inherent aspect of her, she feels doubtful and concerned about her future ability to be successful.
Notice that in both the success and failure of men, their feelings about their self-worth really didn’t change. Their inherent value didn’t take a hit. Yet in neither the success or failure scenario did women deeply internalize self-worth. Over time, these hourly, daily, monthly, yearly repeated attributions greatly inhibit a women’s esteem and sense of value. The non-conscious stores the memories and associated emotions, serving to solidify perpetual questioning of oneself. We say that women must consistently prove themselves at work to others but it also seems that women also must consistently prove themselves to themselves!
What to Do?
Women CAN actively change their thoughts in order to feel more self-assured. Below is an ABC framework that anyone with esteem issues should follow regularly to build greater self-confidence.
1. (A)WARENESS. The first step is becoming aware of your inner dialogue. Catch yourself when your mind is off and running in a negative direction about what you’ve done wrong or how bad you are. Many of us don’t notice the extent of our negative self-talk. The first step to changing it is recognizing when it is happening.
2. (B)ASK IN YOUR GLORY! When you succeed, actively write down all of your inherent characteristics that were at play in your success. Things such as your intuitiveness that led to asking the right questions, or the decisions that you made that headed off any failure, or the relationships that you were able to build because of your style and personality, etc. Keep a log of your achievements or any written or visual praises as a reminder to you about how great you are. Focus on your innate qualities that caused the success. Notice and dwell on the positive feelings you experience as knowing your success is a direct result of YOU. Focusing on the good feelings will help internalize the experience in your non-conscious brain and serve to build a future protectant to your esteem.
3. (C)UT YOURSELF SOME SLACK. When you fail, be sure to give appropriate consideration to any external factors that inhibited your success. Question what you could have done differently, but not your self-worth. Asking how you can perform better is a growth mindset. Wondering how you could be so stupid is a defeatist mindset.
So, next time things don’t go as well as you like, take the lead from men and be more self serving!
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