Confidence and the Mirrors in Others’ Eyes

I’ve been doing some reading on unconscious gender bias and a few paragraphs leaped out at me from an article entitled,  “The Confidence Gap,” by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman; The Atlantic, May 2014.

Even as our understanding of confidence expanded, however, we found that our original suspicion was dead-on: there is a particular crisis for women—a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.

A growing body of evidence shows just how devastating this lack of confidence can be. Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence (Emphasis mine).

How do we build confidence? There are helpful hints offered in a range of lists (of course) found in a quick Internet search.  There is the more scholarly work, including that conducted by Ann Cuddy and “The Power Pose.”

I have an idiosyncratic association when thinking about confidence and it comes from reading the Berenstain Bears, children’s books I used to read to my sons; I remember Mama Bear chiding her daughter about making a “big, braggy show” after doing something wonderful.

The line always bothered me but when researching this essay the context of Mama Bear’s admonishment finally sunk in.  The book was titled, “No Girls Allowed” and the Kindle summary says,

Sister Bear is a tag-along with Brother and his friends and they don’t mind until she starts winning all of the games and is a boastful. They begin to exclude her and make a clubhouse in which girls are not allowed. She is upset and makes her own clubhouse for girls. The always-wise Mama Bear explains that she might not have been excluded for being a girl, but because of how she acted when she won. Sister decides to include the boys and they reciprocate.

Mama Bear is dead wrong with the advice she offers and that particular ending only happens in children’s stories! Sister Bear is proud of her accomplishments and wants the “Boys Club” to notice. Sister Bear toots her own horn!  Would that we could all have the confidence that is reflective of our competence. But we don’t, and until we internalize the markers of our competence and truly believe them, our confidence will suffer. In general, women have a harder time at this than men.

I was more than a competent CEO but it took me a few years to really get that.  The markers took a long time to build – growth, profit, engaged staff, creative ideas from all levels of employees – to name but a few.  Until I really believed those markers were real, I relied on feedback from others, too often second-guessing myself. It was the kindly founder who really built my confidence, reminding me regularly and in myriad ways how good I was for the organization.  Finally I got it.  Once I got it, I was emboldened, moving the company into new territory or tackling the weaknesses in the corporate culture vigorously. Confidence truly affects performance.

I remember one of my most vivid moments as a confident leader.  We were negotiating a large project with a trade association.  The project leader, our general counsel and I met with about 10 people from the potential client.  Their contingent were all arguing that we needed to indemnify them against another company’s business process patent before we could proceed.  After arguing in circles, as attorney billable hours climbed, I finally stood up and stopped the discussion.  I explained that, as much as we wanted this project, I would not do as they asked.  It would not be a sound business decision.  If refusing to indemnify them meant that we didn’t get the business, than so be it.  I wished them well with whichever research partner they chose. As we waited for the elevator I tried to craft my excuse for not making my revenue numbers for London.

I didn’t need it.  They came back, awarded us the project, no indemnification needed.  The kindly founder’s praise and support had worked; it was his proverbial fist in my spine.  I saw my worth reflected in his eyes and I eventually came to believe it.

Fast forward to now.  I am learning that even at this ripe old age, like many women, my confidence doesn’t generalize beyond my demonstrated competence.  In June 2016 I put my first Crone essay up on my website.  Every 10 minutes I checked on the number of hits until my husband took pity and took me out for the day.  Ten months later I am still searching for mirrors in my readers’ eyes to reflect my competence and worth.  How many views, how many hits on social media, how many “likes”?  Am I good enough? Is this working?  I hang on to strangers’ comments, reciting them to my husband, hoping he sees – or that I learn to see – that I am ok at this.

I indulge in magical thinking, waiting for someone to read an essay and make me a star! A line in the NYT Style section infuriates me and embarrasses me, as the author sarcastically sums up executive women who quit and offer advice to others:  “This could position Ms. Chiquet as something of a cross between Sheryl Sandberg and Elizabeth Gilbert: a life coach/empowerment guru focused on the virtues of defining your own value system professionally, emotionally – whatever.” (Friedman, V; “After Chanel, Moving On to a Different Life.”  The New York Times SundayStyles, April 16, 2017).

I am not a star.  I’m a cliché.  Building confidence is slow going.


“You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”    ― Eleanor Roosevelt


Join the discussion One Comment

  • Elizabeth Novak says:

    This current blog truly gave me pause…a long pause. Why do we, even as older women who have had successful careers, still question our skills? We should be confident and proud of what we have accomplished and what we continue to contribute to our immediate environments. I hear men (who are in their 60’s and 70’s) still touting their accomplishments, successes and personal qualities…many which may have happened thirty and forty years ago. I don’t often hear women making similar statements. Thank you for identifying your moments where you seized your confidence.