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The Confidence Code

The Confidence Code Summary
Psychology and Career & Business

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 0062230638

Also available in audiobook

Summary

“When a man, imagining his future career, looks in the mirror, he sees a senator staring back,” remarked once political activist Marie Wilson. “A woman would never be so presumptuous.” This “disarmingly simple observation” served as “the launchpad” for “The Confidence Code,” an interdisciplinary exploration of female reticence and insecurity and a how-to guide to overcoming those traits painlessly. Going well beyond the “confidence trumps competence” cliché, journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman determine the reasons behind “the self-assurance gap” between men and women, and try to uncover if we can do something to mind it. Get ready to discover more!

Stats, gaps and blind auditions

“The economic empowerment of women across the rich world is one of the most remarkable revolutions of the past 50 years,” wrote The Economist at the end of 2009. Indeed, it’s fascinating to think that just half a century ago most women were unemployed housewives, and now, as a whole, wives outearn their husbands in the United States. Moreover, American women get more college and graduate degrees than American men do. Some of the greatest international companies are run by women. At the time we’re writing this, there are 21 female heads of state around the world. Just a short time ago, even one would have been an amazing accomplishment.

And yet, remind us Kay and Shipman, some of the other well-known stats aren’t at all pretty. For example, women earn just 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Only 4% of CEOs in the Fortune 500 are women. There are only 26 women in the United States Senate – and this is still celebrated as a record high, despite amounting to merely one-quarter of all members. Then again, it is still roughly half of all the women who have served in the United States Senate since its establishment in 1789. Believe it or not, as of 2020, that number is still just 58.

Up until recently, this gap was conveniently explained by lack of competence. Women, simply put, were thought of as less intelligent and less capable than men for most of modern history. But in the span of just 50 years, they managed to reverse the education gap and even turn it to their favor. Studies have recently shown that, on average, female CEOs outperform male CEOs in professions where equal participation of both sexes can be observed. So, competence was never really a problem. To quote Kay and Shipman, “when women are given a fair shot at success, they do well.” Case in point: classical musicians. 

Back in 1970, only 5% of the musicians in America’s top symphony orchestras were women. That number rose to 25% by the mid-1990s, and the numbers are even higher today. So, what happened in the meantime? Fascinatingly enough, the revolution seems to owe everything to a remarkably simple adjustment in the hiring process. Namely, during the 1970s, most symphony orchestras in the United States began adopting “blind” auditions, putting up a screen to hide the candidates’ identity and gender. Based exclusively on “the sweet sound of performance,” women began getting hired in far greater numbers than ever before. To think that there are people today who still believe there never was such a thing as gender discrimination.

Confidence and competence, men and women

“Blind” auditions improved female musicians’ likelihood of being hired by top orchestras not only because they reduced sex-based hiring, but also because they inadvertently boosted female confidence levels. It’s easier to believe in yourself when you are by yourself, behind a screen, and nobody’s watching; it’s very difficult when everyone’s judging every aspect of your being. This is especially true for women – even the most successful ones are constantly assessed and disparaged in ways men never are. And that’s a very big problem. Especially in view of the repeatedly observed fact that “success correlates more closely with confidence than it does with competence.”

“The shortage of female confidence is more than just a collection of high-octane anecdotes or wrenchingly familiar scenarios,” write Kay and Shipman. “It is increasingly well quantified and documented.” Take, for example a British study from 2011 which discovered that more than half of British women doubted their competence and knowledge; less than a third of the male respondents reported similar feelings. Linda Babcock, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University, did a similar study in the United States. She discovered that men negotiate their salaries four times more often than women and ask for 30% more during these negotiations. 

These findings are in sync with those of Marilyn Davidson, professor at the prestigious Manchester Business School in England. After surveying her students about their expected salaries five years after graduation, she found out that there was a consistent $16,000 difference between female and male expectations. “Think about that for a minute,” pause here Kay and Shipman. “What Davidson’s findings really mean is that women effectively believe they are 20% less valuable than men believe they are.” This, of course, affects their behavior and actions throughout their lives, and ultimately shapes their destinies. The opposite is true for men: many of them are successful because they are great at faking it until they make it. In fact, some of them have made it precisely because they have the ability to believe themselves when they are faking it. Women are not so great at this.

How confidence affects intelligence and status

Confidence matters at least as much as competence does – if not more. This is what many studies have shown. This is also what Berkеley psychologist Cameron Anderson learned after giving a group of 242 of his students a list of historical names and events, and asked them to tick the ones they knew. Some of the names and events were real or at least believable (such as Pope Joan or the Tunguska explosion), and others (such as Queen Shaddock or Murphy’s Last Ride) were wholly invented and purely fictional. The surprising result of the survey was that the people who had misidentified most fakes as actualities were the ones who were both most confident and with the highest social status. So, despite being less competent than many of their colleagues, these students were the ones who had the most influence with their peers. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of them were males.

Zach Estes thinks he knows why. A professor at the University of Milan and a renowned researcher of the confidence disparity between men and women, he did a series of tests a few years ago, involving more than 500 students. They were tasked with rearranging several spatial puzzles on a computer screen; so, it’s not an exaggeration to say that they had to solve a few simplified Rubik’s cubes. Estes opted for such puzzles for a reason: it’s a well-established fact that, on average, men outperform women on spatial reasoning tasks that involve mental rotations. This may be one of the reasons why men are better than women at chess:probably because of evolution, they seem to be able to visualize better (and more) in space.

But Estes was interested in something else. He wanted to see if confidence has something to do with this disparity. What he found out was rather striking. Namely – and as expected – at first, women scored measurably worse than the men in the group. However, upon further review, Estes realized that the reason behind this could be much more banal than a sex-based predisposition: many of the women, he discovered, hadn’t even attempted to answer a lot of the questions. That’s why he repeated the test, this time adding a caveat – not attempting meant negative points. To his surprise, the women’s scores shot up, and they did almost as well as the men. In one of the very few domains where men, on average, have measurably higher spatial intelligence quotients than women. It seems that this might have a lot to do with confidence, and not so much with competence. 

Sabotage and self-sabotage    

As Kay and Shipman observe, the work of Estes illustrates an interesting point – namely, that “the natural result of under-confidence is inaction.” In other words, women hold themselves back by hesitating too much and acting too little. Men don’t have this problem, so they tend to get further in life. Afraid of failure and crippled by self-doubt, women would rather do nothing than do something wrong. Men would rather do anything than do nothing. Because humans learn best through trial and error, men set themselves up for success by scoffing off failures as temporary. Women, on the other hand, set themselves up for failure by expecting nothing less than permanent success from themselves.

Unfortunately, women don’t just sabotage themselves – society interferes with their growth and progress as well. “If we walk into our boss’s office with unsolicited opinions,” Kay and Shipman write, “if we speak up first at meetings, and give business advice above our pay grade, we are either disliked, or – let’s not beat around the bush – labeled ‘a bitch.’” Men don’t have these kinds of problems. As Linda Hudson, former president and CEO of BAE Systems, noted in an interview with the authors: “When a man walks into a room, they’re assumed to be competent until they prove otherwise. For women it’s the other way around.”

To make matters worse, women want to be liked much more than men do; the $5,000 pay gap is, in many ways, a direct result of their quest for likeability. As Sheryl Sandberg pointed out in her bestselling book “Lean In,” women are “expected to bring likeability to the table.” This makes for a vicious cycle. Because being liked does matter, but being too focused on remaining liked kills confidence. Lack of confidence, in turn, kills one’s chances to go ahead because it keeps them from employing more aggressive strategies.

Dandelions and orchids

Contrary to popular wisdom, women aren’t really more vulnerable than men. However, as psychologist Steve Suomi may have accidentally discovered a few years ago, they may be far more sensitive to the environment. There is a big difference between being vulnerable and being sensitive. The former is rooted in passivity; the latter is active and promises hope for the future. Here’s why.

Rhesus monkeys share 94% of their genes with humans. That is why Suomi has spent several decades studying their behavior. What he discovered was that their sensitiveness may be wired in their genes. Specifically, Suomi was interested in the SLC6A4 gene, present in both rhesus monkeys and humans, and responsible for the absorption of serotonin, one of the so-called happiness hormones. Serotonin also regulates our appetite, sleep patterns and, most importantly, our moods. As a rule of thumb, the more you have of it, the happier and calmer you feel.

Now, Suomi noticed that there are two different mutations of the SLC6A4 gene in rhesus monkeys, one with shorter strands and one with longer ones. Then, he noticed something even stranger: the longer-stranded SLC6A4 gene was present in almost all of the monkeys showing leadership traits. On the other hand, the monkeys born with shorter strands of SLC6A4 were observably less social and more afraid to take risks. Put in the simplest terms possible, some monkeys were just born confident, while others weren’t as fortunate. Unfortunately, the same seems to be true for humans: men may simply be preprogrammed to be more confident than women. 

But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. You see, the exceptions among the monkeys were the ones who were raised by great mothers. And they weren’t just ordinary exceptions: they were the best of the bunch. Their genes had made them sensitive not only to the sufferings and pains of life, but also to the good stuff. When given a chance by their families and environment to grow up properly, these monkeys typically outshone all the rest. In scientific circles, this theory is known as the orchid theory. Most boys, psychologists believe, are like dandelions: “hardy and able to thrive in many environments.” Girls, we now know, can be viewed as orchids: “trickier to raise, but if nurtured in the right environment, able to excel beyond even their sturdier dandelion counterparts.”

Final notes

“The Confidence Code” is simultaneously enlightening and enjoyable, combining scientific studies with firsthand accounts from some of the world’s most powerful women leaders. Again and again, the book demonstrates that men are more successful than women not because they are more competent, but because they have more confidence. 

Even though it is a bit short on practical advice, “The Confidence Code” can certainly help women raise their confidence levels, not the least because it pinpoints the heart of the issue. In the words of bestselling author Gretchen Rubin, Kay and Shipman’s book is a “fascinating reading for every woman who wants to take her life to the next level.”

12min tip

Confidence is just as important as competence, if not more. In other words, “fake it till you make” is a very sound success strategy. Use it – especially if you are a woman. After all, men have been using the same strategy to get where they are for centuries.

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Who wrote the book?

Katty Kay is a British journalist, bestselling author and broadcaster. She is the Washington anchor for BBC World News America and the cohost of “Beyond 100 Days” on BBC Four. She makes frequent appearances as a guest pan... (Read more)

Claire Shipman is an American television journalist, currently the senior national correspondent for ABC'’s “Good Morning America.” She is the receiver of a Peabody Award for her work covering the 1991 Sovi... (Read more)