Confidence or Competence? What Women Writers Should Know

The Write Mind: Sustaining a Creative Life

By Dr. Diane Rogers

In the United States, women earn more college and graduate degrees than men. Women also make up half the U.S. workforce. Numerous studies show corporate profitability improves when companies employ large numbers of women.

So, if female competence has never been more evident, why do men continue to get promoted faster and receive higher compensation? And why are men published more widely than women?

Is male bias entirely to blame or is there something women can do?

Rethinking the Gender Gap

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance, assert that confidence rather competence creates the gap between male and female success.

After interviewing some of the most influential women in America, Kay, a BBC World News anchor, and Shipman, a reporter for ABC News, say they were surprised to discover the relationship between self-assurance and gender. But what really stunned them was the extent to which women suffer from self-doubt. Kay and Shipman’s research correlated women’s inability to “break the glass ceiling” with a lack of confidence.

At Hewlett-Packard, for example, executives seeking ways to increase the numbers of women in management, discovered that women applied for promotions only when they believed they met one hundred percent of the listed job qualifications. On the other hand, male employees regularly applied for higher positions despite being 40 percent less qualified for the jobs they sought.

What Causes the Imbalance?

Much of the academic research on confidence attributes the gender imbalance to socialization and sports, although some studies suggest that hormones also play a role.

In many ways, the sporting field acts as a training ground for the workplace. Boys are to rewarded for trying harder, for soldiering on through challenges. Fueled by ten times more testosterone than girls, boys are also more likely to take risks on the field. Playing sports teaches boys to take failure in their stride. They learn that winning and losing is about showing up and persisting. Psychologists also suggest that experiencing setbacks and failure early in life is vital for confidence-building.

Meanwhile, girls get a double whammy. Female bodies are powered largely by estrogen, a hormone that informs the part of the brain involved in social skills and observations. Estrogen encourages bonding and connection while inhibiting conflict and risk-taking, which some believe may hamper self-confidence. At the same time, society rewards girls for their obedience, cooperative attitudes, and polite manners. Female biochemistry may make it easier for girls to behave better in a classroom setting, but social norms also mandate their compliance and cooperation outside the classroom.

Conflicting Messages

When it comes to organized sports, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that girls are six times more likely than boys to drop out of organized sports. The biggest decline in participation occurs in adolescence when girls also suffer a greater decrease in self-esteem than their male counterparts.

The competitive environment of sports is at odds with the agreeability norms society demands from young girls. Because of this, many girls fail to understand how they can they be competitive on the field and friendly in the classroom. These conflicting messages tend to rattle many girls who are already struggling to develop their identity. Girls typically internalize low confidence as a personal failure and quit competing. They get stuck in a vicious cycle because their withdrawal forfeits the opportunity to regain shattered confidence.

Is Confidence Self-Perpetuating?

A University of California at Santa Barbara study on self-perception reported that men routinely overestimate their abilities and performance, while women underestimate both. Despite the variance in self-belief, there was no difference in the quality of participant performance.

When Zachary Estes, a researcher in Milan asked 500 students to solve a series of spatial puzzles, the women’s scores first appeared measurably worse than the men’s. However, upon further scrutiny, Estes discovered that the women had not even attempted many of the questions. In repeat experiment where answering all questions was a test requirement, the women’s scores matched the men’s. This study illustrates how women hold themselves back by their choice not to try.

The academic data confirms what most women instinctively know:

underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about self-promotion, whereas their overqualified and overprepared female counterparts seek perfection as a pathway to self-confidence.

Men grow up knowing success is largely a numbers game, while most women are haunted by the specter of self-doubt. When women feel uncertain, they hesitate and hold themselves back. Self-doubt results in inertia, so confidence becomes the ultimate Catch-22.

What Women Writers Should Know

According to VIDA, an organization dedicated to tracking and publishing statistics to ensure female literary voices do not go unheard, the numbers of females in publishing remains tragically skewed.

However, Kelli Russell Agodon, co-founder of the of Two Sylvias Press, makes the case that, in publishing, women and men submit their work differently. As former Co-Editor-in-Chief at a small literary press in the Northwest, Agodon noticed that men who were sent rejection letters stating that their work had “come close,” would generally resubmit within a month (sometimes days) after rejection. However, women sent the same letter might resubmit work in three to six months if at all.

Agodon says it’s likely that men are less likely than women to overthink the submission process.

Men don’t try to adhere the some kind of social etiquette. They’re not concerned about appearing too pushy by resubmitting. They just submit.

What Women Can Do

Numerous psychologists confirm that confidence is an acquired skill like any other. To break the cycle of self-doubt, it’s important to stop striving for perfection and just act.

Taking action doesn’t come from confidence. Confidence comes from taking action.

The cardinal rule of confidence is the axiom, “fake it ‘til you make it.” “Making it” means showing up, taking action, and persisting toward your goals despite setbacks. Remember, failure and rejection are part of the bigger game called success.

So, to all my fellow female writers: it’s time to stop overthinking and start submitting! 

6 thoughts on “Confidence or Competence? What Women Writers Should Know

  1. Excellent and timely article, Diane! It’s so true. I just had an experience where someone thought I was asking for more money than we’d agreed to. It was a misunderstanding on her part, but I came close to having a panic attack. I was so worried she’d think I was presumptuous and pushy. The truth is, the money she thought I was asking for was closer to what I should be paid for the job than the money I’m actually getting.

    This must change.

    1. It’s such a complex issue, Greta. Something the majority of women struggle with. I’d love to put together a workshop to address this topic for OC Writers if you think there’s enough interest.

  2. Great article, as usual, Diane.

    Brash and bold comedian, Amy Shummer, stuck a telling line in her opening monologue on SNL. While I don’t recall the precise words, the gist was that her generation has been raised with the message of equality and in daily life they find the reality to differ. No fair.

    I’d noticed this since Women’s Lib came to the fore in my coming-of-age days. I bought into it, but constantly feel thwarted…often by other women who compare/compete, not knowing or wanting to cooperate for the benefit of all. No fair.

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