Mind the Gap


“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough….” Stuart Smalley, a.k.a. Al Franken.

A recent article in The Atlantic Magazine has been the topic of lots of “water cooler” chat at work lately. Titled The Confidence Gapthe article was written by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, both news reporters and co-authors of the book Womenomics. In their piece for The Atlantic, Shipman and Kay explore the persistence of a significant confidence gap between men and women. The overarching idea is that confidence matters as much, if not more, than competence in the world of work, and that women are having difficulty keeping up with their male co-workers in that regard.

It’s a lengthy piece, and well worth reading when you have the time. But what struck me the most were the statistics surrounding what happens in the workplace. For example, men are promoted more frequently than women and often paid more (a national topic currently, but differences in pay aren’t the main focus of this particular article). One of the reasons men seem to be promoted more frequently and more readily is that men ask for promotions more than women do. The authors cite research conducted by Hewlett-Packard that showed men apply for a promotion when they felt they could meet 60% of the new job’s requirements. Women didn’t apply for promotions until they felt they could meet 100% of the new job’s requirements!

Contributing to this dynamic is the tendency for men to overestimate their abilities on a variety of tasks, and for women to underestimate their abilities…even though their actual performance does not differ in quality. Another contributing factor is that women are much harder on themselves when they make a mistake in a work setting; women tend to ruminate on their mistakes, which in turn erodes confidence. In contrast, when men feel self-doubt they move forward anyway; they don’t let it stop them from doing what they want to do. And in studies with groups of undergraduate students, those who displayed the most confidence were rated more highly by their peers than those who displayed the most competence. In other words, it’s not the smartest person in the room who is admired, it’s the person who is most confident.

This made me think of Al Franken, the comedian who became a politician. For roughly 30 years, Franken worked as a writer, performer, and comedian. Then, at some point he decided he wanted to serve in public office so he ran for the senate race in his home state of Minnesota and won. If he had waited until he felt 100% qualified to run for public office (i.e. to ask for that promotion), do you think he would ever have taken that chance? Probably not. Mr. Franken is just one example, but he’s the man who brought us Stuart Smalley’s self-affirmations and it sounds like some women could use more self-affirmation in the workplace.

Smalley’s mantra was: I’m good enough,  I’m smart enough, and doggone it people like me. According to Shipman and Kay, worrying too much if people like you is a potential pitfall for women. So I’m going to revise the mantra just a little bit to I’m good enough and I’m smart enough. If more women simply told themselves that, perhaps the confidence gap would be on its way to closing.



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