Cracking the 'Confidence Code': Why men often outperform women in the workplace

Susan Saulny, Jordyn Phelps and Alexandra Dukakis
Power Players

Power Players

Despite major strides in recent decades, women have yet to attain full equality in the professional world. And evidence presented in a new book by a pair of powerful female journalists suggests that the biggest factor holding women back isn’t lack of competence.

The culprit is a lack of confidence.

“There actually is a confidence gap, there’s science behind this,” BBC World News America anchor Katty Kay told “Power Players.”

Kay and ABC News’ Claire Shipman are the co-authors of “The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance.”

“In the classroom we are superstars, and then we get into the real world and something changes,” Kay added. “The rules change. And women don't play so well. You have to have a certain amount of confidence, and I think that’s the bit of the equation perhaps that women are missing.”

Shipman and Kay were struck by the topic of women’s self-assurance - or lack thereof - while doing research for another book, “Womenomics,” a collaboration they published in 2009 about working women’s empowerment.

“It struck us that so many of the really successful women we talked with would confess, ‘I feel like an imposter or a fraud, why do I have this job, I’m just lucky,’” Shipman said. “And we started to wonder, is this just anecdotal, is this just women talking, talking, talking, talking, or is there more to it. Is there data? And we found, there's a lot of data.”

During the course of their research, Kay and Shipman found that in many tense, work-related situations, such as vying for a promotion, women are holding themselves back.

“Women will apply for a promotion if they went after opportunities they were 100 percent qualified for, while men with just 60 percent of the skill set required went for the same openings,” Kay said. “They just assume they're going to learn the rest on the job.”

Another major factor holding women back: fear of failure. Shipman and Kay found this was a common characteristic among many of the women to whom they spoke and cautioned women against giving into the feeling, assuring readers that it’s all part of the confidence-building process.

“Failure is so important,” Shipman said. “What we've come to understand is that only through failing and learning resilience do you learn to take risks, and risks are really essential to certain level of success.”

Shipman pointed to research by psychologist Zach Estes, who was studying a group completing spatial intelligence tests and found that women were underperforming on the tests because they would often not answer questions when they weren’t certain of the answer.

“He went back and he said, ‘Everybody answer the questions.’ They did just about the same. And so women weren't willing to take the risk because they were afraid they were going to be wrong,” Shipman said. “We have to just answer the questions.”

But women out there, don’t fret: Kay and Shipman’s study also found that individuals have the power to change the equation.

“Confidence is the stuff that turns thought into action, and if it is about action, that is something that we can choose,” Kay explained. “We can choose to take the next step that scares us, or ask for that promotion, or put ourselves forward for that difficult task. And it's in taking action that we get more confidence, so it's a virtuous circle in some ways.”

But Shipman and Kay said the goal of their book isn’t simply to preach the gospel of confidence as an all-purpose solution for women’s trouble in the workplace.

”We know that the playing field isn't equal,” Shipman said, in discussing a moment from the 2008 Democratic presidential primary when then-candidate Sen. Barack Obama famously told Hillary Clinton that she was “likeable enough.”

“There's some stuff we look at in men and think that's confidence, that's not necessarily confidence,” Shipman said. “That may just be male behavior. Confidence might come from a more authentic place, it might just be about listening more for women. But still being heard and I think that's the trick.”

For more of the interview with Shipman and Kay, including why women’s raising their hands may experience the “conundrum of confidence,” click on this episode of “Power Players.”

ABC’s Richard Coolidge, Gary Westphalen, Jim Martin and Gary Rosenberg contributed to this episode.