The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know

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Published: 4/3/2018
Confidence. We want it. We need it. But it can be maddeningly enigmatic and out of reach. The authors of the New York Times bestseller Womenomics deconstruct this essential, elusive, and misunderstood quality and offer a blueprint for bringing more of it into our lives.

Book Summary - The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman

Key Insights

Most people believe that women are less confident than men or women don’t behave as if they are as confident. But in many male-dominated fields, confidence is essential to workplace success.

In The Confidence Code, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman break down what confidence is and why it is important. Confidence is especially complex and problematic for women, but the authors explain how to crack the code to become more confident.

Key Points

Confidence lets you act, even if you’re not sure you’ll succeed.

If you’ve ever regretted not being able to get yourself to do something, you’ve suffered from a lack of confidence before.

Kay and Shipman define confidence as believing in yourself enough to do or say something. This is not to say that you assume you’ll get it right or that you assume everything will just work out. You can be nervous or afraid, but you act anyway. This is confidence.

The other side of this is inaction because of a lack of confidence. Rather than risk failure, we choose not to do anything at all.

Confidence differs from perfectionism, optimism, and arrogance because there’s no assumption of a good outcome. You do not wait until you’re sure that you will be right. You do not act out of a positive outlook that everything generally works out fine. You do not have an unshakeable belief in your ability to succeed.

Taking action is a key part of confidence. It takes your attitudes or thoughts, and it turns them into something tangible. Of course, a positive outlook about the world and yourself can help boost your confidence. It means you take more action.

Women are more likely to lack confidence than men.

The difference in confidence between men and women generally is seen most clearly once you understand that it is about taking action despite a risk of failure.

Kay and Shipman provide an example of a professor who gave his students complicated puzzles to solve. It seemed that the male students were doing better on these puzzle tests than the female students. Then, he realized that his female students were leaving a lot more puzzles blank. The professor had everyone retake the puzzle test and instructed them to provide an answer to every question. The men no longer outperformed the women in the class.

A lack of confidence prevented attempting the answer questions, even though the eventual results showed that they could answer more correctly than they thought.

Confidence generally looks different in men than women.

The way women show their confidence isn’t the same as the way men do. It also likely wouldn’t be received the same way if it were.

Men, especially confident men, are more overt, dominant, and loud about their confidence. They are energetic and ready to voice their opinions. Confidence in men can also appear aggressive. In the workplace, this is often expected and may even be desirable.

Women are less aggressive with their confidence. Even if they are sure of themselves, there may be femininity or softness to the way they express it. For example, women are often more humble, collaborative, and cooperative. This does not detract from the confidence because women can still voice their opinions, defend their positions, and be certain of their actions. Women just don’t have to do it in a loud or aggressive manner to show their confidence.

The challenge for women is when an attempt at faking confidence reflects poorly on them. With the expectation that women act differently than men, putting on a tough front comes off fake. Rather than undermining your own confidence, you should use the approach that feels natural to you and take pride in it. The confidence will shine through.

A lack of confidence hurts women in the workplace.

Business is a male-dominated field. There are female CEOs at only 4 percent of Fortune 500 companies. A boost in confidence could be part of the equation for gaining more ground.

Women are more likely to accept less than what they demand at work. This lack of confidence affects the work that they get to do, what they get paid for it, and how they are treated in the workplace.

The workplace differs from a classroom in many ways. In a classroom, good work speaks for itself. In the workplace, good work may not be enough. You have to take the initiative and promote your work and your abilities. Otherwise, good work alone may not get you noticed. This means you may miss better projects and opportunities.

Asking for more money and negotiating for yourself requires confidence. A series of studies by a Carnegie Mellon University economics professor showed the impact on women. Men negotiate their salary four times as frequently as women. Even the women who do negotiate set a lower bar for themselves. They expect to get 30 percent less of a raise than men expect to.

To thrive at work, you also have to be able to put your best ideas out there. Unfortunately, women speak way less than men. If there are more men than women in the room, the women speak up to 75 percent less. Good ideas might be missed by not speaking up, but you have to have the confidence to put your thoughts out there.

The business world can be cutthroat and you can’t allow self-doubt to handicap you. If you can’t advocate for yourself, you may miss good projects, promotions, and a higher salary.

Competence doesn’t equal confidence.

If you lack confidence, you probably doubt your own capabilities. This does not mean you are actually incompetent. Confidence has to do with your perceptions, and whether or not you allow insecurities to stop you.

Low confidence can also keep you from increasing your competence. If you cannot envision being successful in your field, there is no motivation to better yourself. If you doubt your abilities and your potential, you can miss opportunities.

Even successful people have faced self-doubt. Christine Lagarde, who served as the head of the International Monetary Fund, is an incredibly successful woman and one of the best in her field. Even she had issues with confidence during her career. Obviously, her competence was not a problem and she found the confidence to get to where she did.

There is a genetic component to confidence.

If you’re now feeling a lack of confidence about your confidence, take comfort in knowing that some of this was out of your hands.

Scientists have found that a variety of character traits, like aggression, have some genetic component. Confidence is no different. Your genes determine half of your confidence.

Research in monkeys found a connection between a serotonin-regulating gene and confidence. A monkey that had the gene linked with confidence could turn out confident even with an unsupportive mother. Similarly, a monkey with a gene linked with low confidence could end up more confident than the monkeys with the “better” gene if they had a caring mother.

It isn’t all up to the gene. The gene makes a certain trait more likely, but your environment can bring it out or help you overcome it.

Society generally treats girls and boys differently, which impacts confidence.

From an early age, girls are rewarded for being good and diligent. Boys are expected to run around, take risks, and get messy. They aren’t punished for not being “good.”

Treating boys and girls in this way pushes girls to focus on being perfectionists to get everything right. A desire to not be wrong or “bad” makes it hard to have the confidence to put yourself out there.

Beyond genetics, the environment for girls sets them up to have lower confidence.

You can build confidence even without genetics and childhood on your side.

No matter the genetics and how you were raised, it is still possible to improve your confidence.

Brain plasticity means even adults can alter their brains. In other words, you can change the physical structure of your brain. There’s no brain surgery involved, just being committed to changing your thoughts.

This may sound impossible, but studies show how you can change your brain. A mere two hours of behavioral therapy for people afraid of spiders changed everything. Brain scans showed that the part of the brain responsible for fear was not active even though they were touching a live tarantula!

Focus on changing the way you think about yourself to improve your confidence. Everyone has negative thoughts, often automatically. Redirect negative thoughts into positive ones. Try to reframe a criticism into a compliment.

Changing the way you think, especially the unconscious negativity, may feel hard. But if you keep at it, you can spark your confidence.

You will fail. Handle it with confidence.

If you are worried that your plan might not work, you could take yourself back to the drawing board. Unfortunately, women often stay in the planning zone and overthink things.

Building confidence requires risking failure. Instead of worrying about whether you’re good enough to win a contest before entering, just enter and see what happens. You may not win, but you’ll be better prepared for the next one.

Failure itself can also build confidence. You can realize that getting something wrong didn’t break you. Maybe you didn’t win the contest, but you’re still alive and relatively unharmed.

A confident response to failure is to think of it as a learning opportunity. Your natural talent isn’t the issue, but maybe there are areas of your execution that can be enhanced. Think of what happened in terms of a specific situation. Failing on one task doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough.

The fear of failure can cripple you. Embracing failure can help you soar.

The Main Take-away

Confidence does not come as easily to women as it does men. Between genetics and a childhood environment that doesn’t leave girls room to fail, women are set up to lack confidence. But it is possible to change that by shifting your thoughts. Redirect negative into positive and reframe failures into opportunities. Cracking the confidence code will help women thrive in male-dominated workplaces and all aspects of their lives.

About the Authors

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman are both television journalists. Kay is a presenter for BBC World News America and Shipman is a correspondent for Good Morning America. The Confidence Code is their second book together. The first book, Womenomics, proved the corporate value of female management.

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