July Feature Review: The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know

By Caryn Radick

I came across news anchor Katty Kay and journalist Claire Shipman as the authors of 2009’s Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success, which dealt with work-life balance.  Five years later, Kay and Shipman are back with The Confidence Code (Harper Business, 2014), spurred on by the tide of discussions by women who were inspired or troubled by the messages in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (2013).[1]

CCodeDiscussions in the Lean In universe focus on how women might be holding themselves back from taking charge of their lives and careers the way men do (or seem to).[2]  This is where Kay and Shipman come in with their examination of the role confidence plays in women’s advancement.  The subtitle of the book is a little more telling: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know.

Kay and Shipman work to understand confidence by interviewing successful women, particularly those holding positions in typically male-dominated fields such as athletics, international banking, politics, and the military. Along the way, they also consider how biology and genetics play a role in the development of confidence, along with gender conditioning. All of this is done with the caveat that—of course–not all women and men fit into these patterns.

The news is a little disheartening as it turns out genetically women are wired to be less confident (or conversely, men are wired to be more so). Other moments of wondering if we’re all doomed come from the authors’ realization that as relatively high-powered women talking to other successful women, a lot of them display self-doubt and deprecation about their abilities.

And even worse, traits that can help men be successful, such as assertiveness and not taking “no” for an answer, are perceived more negatively by both men and women when exhibited by women. Sadly, the “bitch” factor comes into play when a woman displays these behaviors. Kay and Shipman assert that knowing this frustrating information can motivate us to combat it, although how is a question beyond the scope of the book.

The Confidence Code provides a valuable view of how women hold themselves back, referring to a “blacklist” of qualities that are their confidence killers: overthinking, people pleasing, inability to let go of defeats, and perfectionism. Women care what other people think of them and have a difficult time taking steps if they might lead to failure. The way women communicate can also undermine their achievements (using “upspeak,” where statements sound like questions, and self-deprecation). Even in talking to successful women and considering their own careers, the authors have seen a tendency for women to attribute their successes to luck. Kay and Shipman also address and what women can do to build confidence and move themselves forward. Unfortunately, some of us might find one solution worse than the problem—embracing the prospect of failure. The Confidence Code points out that where men see failure as something easily brushed aside or something that reveals others’ faults (i.e., my idea was good, my boss just isn’t receptive to change), it stops women in their tracks and they won’t take the risk. Even worse is the tendency to ruminate, dwelling on failures past and [possible] future makes it difficult to move forward. The best way past this is to go out there knowing that failure is often a step to success and that not trying at all won’t get you anywhere. Although this is not new advice (I feel like I’ve seen a number of books and posts about the importance of failure in the last several years), seeing it connected to issues of confidence in women makes me revisit my observations about successes and failures to consider the role it played. Other strategies include learning self-compassion and developing ways to cut off negative thoughts; needless to say, this requires practice.

But, taking a step back, why is confidence so important? The “ouch”-inducing statement at the book’s opening is that “We found that success correlates more closely with confidence than it does with competence. Yes, there is evidence that confidence is more important than ability when it comes to getting ahead. This came as particularly unsettling news to us” (xx, emphasis theirs).  I’m sure they aren’t the only ones. Although it’s frustrating to consider that stronger skills might not be valued as much as another person’s ability to convey strength, it also makes sense that being more visible and talking up talents and abilities will bring more opportunities and therefore more chances at success.

As with Lean In, reading The Confidence Code led me to look back at my own career path, but also to think about how these gender issues might impact the archival profession.  As a female dominated profession, do confidence issues hold us back in our advocacy of ourselves as professionals (negotiating salaries, for example) and in stating the value of archivists and asking for resources? Do displays of confidence get negative reactions?  If so, how can we change this?

While Kay and Shipman aren’t necessarily saying anything new (and I found their need to mention what some of their interviewees were wearing and eating off-putting), The Confidence Code offers a useful post-Lean In examination of what confidence is, how women might suffer for lacking it, and what behaviors help or hurt it. I also found myself wanting to track down and read many of the studies they cite documenting gender issues and how confidence happens. I appreciated that it was willing to address the “bitch” factor and acknowledge that women who display confidence may also find it holds them back. Although it may take a lot of reframing to see failure as desirable, the authors make their point about how and why it’s necessary, and that women need to conquer their fear of it.

[1] Lean In has been featured in archival dialogue this year, including conference sessions and a hosted Twitter discussion.

[2] I first learned about their book via the Lean In website http://leanin.org/news-inspiration/8-ways-to-boost-your-confidence-what-no-one-ever-tells-you/). Sandberg herself is offered special thanks in the book’s acknowledgments and reviewed the manuscript.

Interested in writing a review? Contact us! women.archivists.roundtable@gmail.com

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