Saturday, April 19, 2014

At The Atlantic: The Confidence Gap

At The Atlantic, Kattie Kay and Claire Shipman explore "The Confidence Gap." In study after study, the same gender difference appears: Women are less confident about their answers, want to be absolutely sure of an outcome before they apply for a job, and don't want to risk rejection in the workplace or being thought a fool if they get something wrong.

And men?  This says it all, really:
“I think that’s really interesting,” Brescoll said with a laugh, “because the men go into everything just assuming that they’re awesome and thinking, who wouldn't want me?" . . . 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. 
I'm thinking about how this plays out in the academic world.
  • We've all talked about how women take on too much service, and it's well known that women take longer to get from associate to full professor than men do.  From the article (though not about academia): "Women applied for a promotion only when they met 100 percent of the qualifications. Men applied when they met 50 percent."
  • In some cases this "dot every i, cross every t" syndrome make be justified, since women may be implicitly held to higher standards.
  • Is the service component  a place where it's possible to achieve some kind of perfection, whereas having enough publications is a constantly moving target?  I'm speculating, but couldn't that be true?
  • Are we socializing our students in these gendered ways? When we're preparing them for an interview (a job interview, a med school interview), do we encourage men and women equally to be direct, to challenge an interviewer if needed, and to speak up?
  • Does this apply to classes, too? Are the students who speak out with confidence even if they're wrong male and the hesitant ones female?  I haven't seen that in my classes, but I wonder if more study would show this.
  • There's such a premium on being smart in academia, where the highest accolade is "That was a really smart talk" or "She wrote a really smart book." Does this mean that women are more afraid of being thought a fool than men are?
  • How does this confidence gap intersect with those who were bullied as children, especially those who were bullied because they were intelligent or bookish? For example, what if you kept your mouth shut when you knew answers in class because you knew that you would be bullied and made miserable by a gang of girls once recess rolled around? That seems less like a lack of confidence than an urgent desire not to be picked on.
I had always attributed this confidence gap to family socialization, not so much a gendered thing but a family thing.  In my family, any offhand remark that you might like to do anything mildly aspirational (like travel or do something besides teach high school), or any stupid statement, meant that relatives teased you mercilessly about it for years. In Spouse's family, the wildest of plans were conveniently forgotten if they failed or if the person changed his mind, as if the whole former plan were swept down the memory hole.  This meant that they could, in Steve Jobs's words, fail early and often, and since no one ever brought it up again, you could try and fail without hearing about it endlessly.



Pat Bowne said...

I'd be one of those women with this so-called 'confidence gap.' I want what I say to be true. I want my credibility to be unimpeachable and my example to be one of punctilious honesty. And you know what? The question isn't why women act in this professional a manner. It's why we let men get away with a lower standard.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I have to say, my reaction to that article was exactly the same as Pat Browne's: I'm pretty uncomfortable with the way it frames "confidence" as a desirable characteristic, particularly confidence that trumps a rational assessment of one's knowledge and abilities. (I see this all the time in students -- there's always that one who announces "I'm going to be your best student" at the beginning of the semester, and has flamed out spectacularly by midterm. The confidence isn't built on anything real, and they don't have the self-knowledge and the humility to figure out what to do next when they turn out not to be the best student in the class. Those traits are less obvious in middle-aged administrators, but no less disastrous.)

Anonymous said...

The problem is precisely what Pat Bowne says. Our work HAS to be better to be treated the same way as men's. We can't give 50%, we have to give more to get to the same place.

I've seen several recent experiments that show when women are in a situation in which they expect to be treated more like the men are, they act more like the men do in terms of submitting, not volunteering, etc.

undine said...

Pat Browne--Good point. Is the answer "because men sometimes talk more forcefully, even if they're wrong"? I think everyone's been in the situation where someone says something stupid, loudly and forcefully, and it's hard to be the person who, when everyone else is nodding agreement at the incorrect statement, breaks in and corrects it. For one thing, it puts you in the role of playing defense; you get to be the corrector rather than the decider, so to speak, and your ideas will be treated as reactions rather than as genuine contributions. It's not right, but I think we've all seen it in action.

Fie--It's like the study (also cited in the Atlantic) where people not smart enough to know their own limitations consistently overestimate their own abilities. What the Atlantic is framing as confidence is really arrogance, as in the case of the student.

nicoleandmaggie--Those studies would be interesting. Are they about very specialized workplaces, like serving on an aircraft carrier or something?

The place where I think this might work in academia is on committees. If you don't want to hear someone's opinion, why did you put her on a committee? I speak up more than I used to (using this logic) and am also not afraid to re-interrupt if someone interrupts during a point I'm making, something that would make me seethe in silence a decade ago.

Belle said...

Just had an example of this in my academic department. All faculty were asked to rate themselves on a 1-9 scale: 9 exceptional, 7-8 excellent and on down. I listed everything I'd done over that past academic year (committees, scholarship, etc.) and gave myself a 7. My two male colleagues, who've done 1/3 of the services, are mediocre teachers and zero scholarship - gave themselves 7s. Unwarranted overconfidence.

Anonymous said...

No, they are lab experiments and field experiments. Linda Babcock has several, including one with Lise Vesterlund that models why women always end up doing the bulk of grunt service in academic dept. there's also one that shows that when affirmative action is announced, the applicant pool increases so that it is not actually needed to be implemented.

Capcha code : pricksong

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

The one thing I really feel confident about is my competence at my job. I know I'm a good teacher, and my research is humming along just fine, too. However, I do have this pressing need to be perfect at my job -- never call in sick, never flake on anything, never be the one who isn't helping, etc. I know the problem. It's that I feel pressure to be a superstar because I don't want people to think I'm handicapped because (1) I'm a woman, and (2) I have kids (ages 8 and 4). I don't know if that's a confidence issue for me. But I am aware that I've been treated differently because I'm a woman, so I intend to show everyone how wrong they are about me and other women in the profession. By being a model citizen (if not exemplary, really), then I have this crazy notion that I can change everyone's attitude toward women in academia. It probably will never happen, but that never stopped me from trying.

Historiann said...

Sorry I'm late to this rodeo. I agree with everything in this thread, pretty much.

At least in the humanities at many universities, there are enough senior women (like most of us in this thread, I'm thinking) who can actively cease rewarding male underachievement and overconfidence. Do we have the stones to start complaining openly about our service loads, and to start voting against tenure and promotions for some colleagues? That's what it will take.

undine said...

Belle--Another "I am awesome!" moment :). Don't you wonder what would happen if a woman rated herself this high on little evidence?

nicoleandmaggie--Thanks for the references (and the captcha).

Fie--I hear you about wanting to be a model teacher/colleague because of gender. The reason I gave up on it --well, the 'living in the office' part of it--is that it's impossible to change anyone's stereotypes, not that we can't try. I can be available at ungodly hours 99 times out of 100, and the 1 time that I'm not, it's because "I'm never around." Sad but true.

Historiann--I'd agree, except that the thing about P & T is that it's based in the documents rather than any extracurricular bragging on the part of the candidate. But comparing service loads ought to get some attention.