The confidence gap

Everyone (ladies especially) should read this Atlantic article on the confidence gap between men and women. The passage I’ve quoted below particularly made my heart drop in my chest. The women on my team are praised (and compensated) for being diligent, extremely capable, and rock-solid performers – which we are. But the men are more like peacocks (also competent ones, I should note), strutting their stuff with off-the-cuff industry analyses in meetings and familiar, confident performances in partner meetings. I’m pretty good at the latter, but I just can’t seem to get myself any traction on the former. Which, I’m sure, is part of the reason that I’m pretty darn stuck in my role, fighting for a promotion. I’m confident, but I also don’t like to talk without a complete understanding of what I’m expounding on, and studies have shown that I’d probably be penalized if I did.

Consider the following tale of two employees. A female friend of ours in New York was supervising two 20‑something junior staffers, one female (whom we will call Rebecca) and one male (whom we will call Robert). Even though Robert had been on the job for only a few months, he was already stopping by our friend’s office to make off-the-cuff pitches for new ad campaigns, to comment on business strategy, and to share unsolicited opinions about magazine articles he’d recently read. Our friend often found herself shooting down his ideas, correcting his misperceptions, and sending him off for further research. “No problem” seemed to be his attitude. Sometimes he’d respond with a counterargument; other times, he’d grin and shrug his shoulders as he headed back to his desk. A few days later, he’d be back in to pitch more ideas and to update her on what he was doing, even if all he had to say was “I’m still working on this.”

Our friend was struck by how easily Robert engaged her, and how markedly different his behavior was from that of Rebecca, with whom she’d worked for several years. Rebecca still made appointments to speak with her and always prepared a list of issues for their discussions. She was mostly quiet in meetings with clients, focused as she was on taking careful notes. She never blurted out her ideas; she wrote them up with comprehensive analyses of pros and cons. Rebecca was prepared and hardworking, and yet, even though our friend was frequently annoyed by Robert’s assertiveness, she was more impressed by him. She admired his willingness to be wrong and his ability to absorb criticism without being discouraged. Rebecca, by contrast, took negative feedback hard, sometimes responding with tears and a trip to her own office to collect herself before the conversation could continue.

Our friend had come to rely on and value Rebecca, but she had a feeling it was Robert’s star that would rise. It was only a matter of time before one of his many ideas would strike the right note, and he’d be off and running—probably, our friend was beginning to fear, while Rebecca was left behind, enjoying the respect of her colleagues but not a higher salary, more responsibilities, or a more important title.

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