Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Minor Goddess Thoughts. Post 1: The Confidence Gap Between Men And Women

I'm trying to create a series of small-to-medium thoughts, as a way to spring-clean some of the junk that hangs around in my brain.  This one is about all the recent conversations on how men have more self-confidence and how women need to get more of it and not be so focused on perfection.

The recent conversations are because a new book is out on the topic.  A flavor can be obtained from this Atlantic Monthly article by the authors. It puts together a lot of studies which show that men have more confidence in their abilities, even unwarranted confidence, and then speculates about the possible reasons for this confidence gap, all the way from testosterone to early childhood upbringing.

Because this post is only a minor goddess thought, I haven't gone through the studies or thought about why evolution would benefit from a confidence gap of that sort (though I did have time to wonder if the studies all use American data, and if so, whether the confidence gap might be cultural).

Instead, I wish to draw attention to this weird argument chain:

Do men doubt themselves sometimes? Of course. But not with such exacting and repetitive zeal, and they don’t let their doubts stop them as often as women do. If anything, men tilt toward overconfidence—and we were surprised to learn that they come by that state quite naturally. They aren’t consciously trying to fool anyone. Ernesto Reuben, a professor at Columbia Business School, has come up with a term for this phenomenon: honest overconfidence. In a study he published in 2011, men consistently rated their performance on a set of math problems to be about 30 percent better than it was.

We were curious to find out whether male managers were aware of a confidence gap between male and female employees. And indeed, when we raised the notion with a number of male executives who supervised women, they expressed enormous frustration. They said they believed that a lack of confidence was fundamentally holding back women at their companies, but they had shied away from saying anything, because they were terrified of sounding sexist. One male senior partner at a law firm told us the story of a young female associate who was excellent in every respect, except that she didn’t speak up in client meetings. His takeaway was that she wasn’t confident enough to handle the client’s account. But he didn’t know how to raise the issue without causing offense. He eventually concluded that confidence should be a formal part of the performance-review process, because it is such an important aspect of doing business.

The fact is, overconfidence can get you far in life. Cameron Anderson, a psychologist who works in the business school at the University of California at Berkeley, has made a career of studying overconfidence. In 2009, he conducted some novel tests to compare the relative value of confidence and competence. He gave a group of 242 students a list of historical names and events, and asked them to tick off the ones they knew.

Among the names were some well-disguised fakes: a Queen Shaddock made an appearance, as did a Galileo Lovano, and an event dubbed Murphy’s Last Ride. The experiment was a way of measuring excessive confidence, Anderson reasoned. The fact that some students checked the fakes instead of simply leaving them blank suggested that they believed they knew more than they actually did. At the end of the semester, Anderson asked the students to rate one another in a survey designed to assess each individual’s prominence within the group. The students who had picked the most fakes had achieved the highest status.

Here's the way I understand that long quote (sorry about the length):  Men can be too confident but because they are too confident honestly, it's all good.  Indeed, overconfidence gives social rewards!

Well, perhaps in studies which employ very young undergraduates as their subjects.  But I think most people learn about this thing called overconfidence when they get to know more and more people, and most people then calibrate down their expectations when they come across a very boastful person.

I may be mistaken about how general such corrections are, but I certainly carry them out frequently.  In short, overconfidence (false though honestly felt confidence) should not benefit people in the long-run if the reward systems are based on any kind of rationality, because overconfidence doesn't signal anything real.

This doesn't mean that lack of confidence wouldn't be undesirable, especially in those who actually have a lot to be confident about.  Neither does it mean that there wouldn't be a gender difference in the amount of confidence men and women express, on average, and in the US, at least.  Still, I find it fascinating how the natural lens in these kinds of articles is to assume that the problem is solely in how women are, so that the solution is change the way women are.  Perhaps judging workers and students on objective criteria might be better?

Then there are my personal experiences (you can add yours in the comments):  During my life I have been questioned about any expertise I have often enough that I have spotted the pattern in that questioning.  It's as if I need to prove myself over and over again.  Certificates and degrees are not sufficient. 

If such questioning is more common about women than about men, then some of the confidence gap may be created by the very fact that women meet more doubt.  At least such questioning may make some women very careful about what they say or double-check everything before saying it.

Add to that the traditional gender role ideas about women.  In many cultures those strongly discourage women from blowing their own trumpets, and if a woman does pick up a trumpet, the outcome might not be the same as a confident male trumpeter receives.  Because she has violated role expectations she are more likely to  get not only accolades but also a reputation as an uppity bitch.

The best remedy for the problem of too little deserved confidence is to see what else gets touted in your field, which types of people and what type of work get promoted and what ultimately successful people do when they first fail.  And no, you certainly don't need to be perfect.  Even minor goddesses aren't.