Ever heard of the confidence gap? Well, we hate to break it to you but men are generally more confident than people of other genders. And since confidence and competence equally contribute to success, the gender gap in confidence explains why we find more men at the top of businesses, politics, and cultural life.
Indeed, when it comes to confidence, women start life with a disadvantage. Statistics show that by the age of only five, girls have already started developing the belief that they are not as smart as boys. In 2018, toy producer Mattel – the company behind Barbie – ran a campaign called The Dream Gap highlighting some scary statistics: Girls are three times less likely to be given a science related toy and parents are twice as likely to google “is my son gifted?” than “is my daughter gifted?”
Biases like these have a huge impact on parental expectations, motivation, support and, as a consequence, on young girls’ self-esteem. If a child is not raised with the belief she is to be the next great mathematician or chess player, the chance she’ll actually become one quickly drops. Why? Because perseverance, enthusiasm and commitment are harder to sustain without the conviction that you’re actually capable of reaching your goal.
Later in life, women’s lack of confidence limits their ability to compete in fields that men are believed to perform strongly in. Besides, women are likely to shrug off praise, underestimate their own abilities, or label their successes as mere luck. This may make it more difficult for women to take on leadership roles, demand a better wage or a well-deserved promotion, speak out when they are treated unfairly or intervene when they are interrupted in conversations.
Factors that limit women’s confidence are often invisible and sometimes well meant. The idea that women are vulnerable, fragile and in need of protection is dominant in most societies. Acts of benevolent sexism, like carrying a woman’s bag, reinforce this idea as they expect women to be dependent and weak. This is in turn internalised by women, adversely impacting their confidence in their own abilities. At the same time, men are supposed to be always cool and in control, strong, fearless and self-reliant – a similarly toxic gender expectation.
How to bridge the confidence gap? Let’s start by telling all young children that they can do and become anything they want. Let’s stop saying “boys will be boys” and instead correct men when they need to be corrected. Let’s stop complimenting girls on their looks or good manners and instead encourage them to be brave and bold. And, perhaps most importantly, stop punishing people who aren’t men for showing confidence, courage and determination.