I saw Katty Kay and Claire Shipman on the Colbert Report, and I immediately wanted to read this book. They’ve studied all the ways that women’s lower confidence levels (compared to men) hold them back in the workplace and personally. If you pay attention, you know some of the obvious differences between men and women. Men ask for what they want. Women value friendship and teamwork above getting ahead. Men give themselves credit when they succeed and blame other things when they fail. Women credit their successes to someone else.
That’s not all bad. But Kay and Shipman explore further, looking at brain research and genetics to consider whether these differences are biological or cultural. They also look at the data that gives evidence to these perceptions. For example, men tend to think they did better on a test than they actually did, where women think they did worse. And this was interesting: on a test where wrong answers are penalized, women failed to answer a lot of the questions. The men guessed at more questions and significantly outscored the women, even with the penalty for wrong answers.
The upshot? Men are confident enough to try, where women get caught in their own heads. Once we’re done thinking of the many reasons not to try something, we don’t.
Another one? Women brood. In other words, if we perceive something did not go well, we are miserable about it for days. Men are more likely to blame something external for the problem, while we blame ourselves. And men move on to the next thing – we don’t.
Kay and Shipman are careful to point out that even though some of the differences between men and women are biological, women can still strengthen their confidence. Simply being aware is important. For example, women’s body language compared to men’s says a lot. Women try to take up as little space as possible, where men stretch out. And psychologically, it makes a difference. They asked a group of girls to try sitting more like boys, and the girls were fascinated by how much stronger they felt. Another thing is voice. Women tend to raise their voices at the end of a sentence so we sound like we’re asking a question. The message we send is that we’re not committed to what we’re saying, and we’re inviting others to disagree. Men don’t do this.
This really resonated with me. One of my problems is I worry so much about things I don’t try them. And another is I definitely undercut myself when I talk. I’m pretty sure I do the “turning statements into questions” thing. Also, have you seen the Pantene ad that tells women not to say “I’m sorry” so much? I love that ad, because I definitely do that.
I was pleased to see that some parts of this book don’t describe me. I’m pretty confident at work for example. I may be indecisive when it comes to picking an outfit or where to go for dinner, but at work I’ve learned the value of making a decision. As a manager for four years, I learned this lesson well: often there’s no “right” decision, people just need you to make one. Otherwise you’re going nowhere.
Kay and Shipman also point out that some differences between men and women are positive, and that most workplaces benefit from having a mix of genders. There’s nothing wrong with valuing teamwork and friendship, and seeing the big picture (women are better at seeing the consequences of our actions). But we need to use those strengths rather than let them undermine us.
A lot of this book talks about how parents can build the confidence of their daughters, by pushing them to take risks, and putting less emphasis on being a “good girl” (e.g., obedient and quiet versus active and adventurous). They talk about the importance of team sports, and valuing success and failure. They also talk about the importance of valuing real successes, not those of the “everybody wins” variety. In other words, don’t build your daughter’s self-esteem by telling her that everyone is special. Push her to experience real challenges and earn her successes.
I think this is a book every woman should read. I want to send a copy to my sisters but I’m not sure how they’ll feel about it. I think we’ll all see ourselves in this book, even if we hold ourselves back in different ways.