The Problem With Confidence Men

The Problem With Confidence Men

If you happen to be a world leader, and you happen to attend one of those world leader powwows to which the rest of us usually aren’t invited (the opening festivities of the U.N. General Assembly session, for instance), and you happen to look around at your fellow world leaders, you might also happen to notice that most of your fellow world leaders are fellows.

According to U.N. figures, women made up only about 10 percent of all heads of state in 2013, and, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, women constituted only about 17 percent of all government ministers in 2012 and 22 percent of all parliamentarians worldwide as of February 2014. In the United States, only 20 percent of current cabinet secretaries are female, along with only 18.5 percent of all current members of Congress. A few rungs down the ladder, men continue to outnumber women: Women hold only one-third of federal senior executive service positions, for instance, and in the national security and foreign-policy agencies, the figure is even more skewed toward men.

Since women make up 51 percent of the world’s population, all this raises an obvious question: Why don’t women run the world — or at least 51 percent of it?

Good question! In answer, you might be tempted to start muttering about the lingering effects of centuries of sex-based discrimination or the lingering existence, in some quarters at least, of good old-fashioned sexism. You might also add a scowling commentary on the scarcity of affordable, high-quality child care, the absurd demands of the 24/7 workplace, the "second shift" of housework and child care most women still do when they get home from their paid jobs, and the cultural expectations that steer women away from traditionally male roles such as leader of the free world (or even chief of staff to the leader of the free world).

But you’d be wrong. Or at least, according to veteran television reporters Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, you’d be missing the deeper underlying reason for women’s "continued failure to break the glass ceiling," which is "something more basic: women’s acute lack of confidence."

In the cover story in this month’s issue of the Atlantic, Kay and Shipman offer a lengthy excerpt from their just-published book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know. Few women make it to the top, they argue, because women generally underestimate and undervalue their own skills and expertise. They’re less likely than men to ask for raises or negotiate about salaries when they get job offers, and even when the objective evidence suggests that they know as much as or more than their male peers, women still express less confidence about their knowledge. As a result, they’re less likely than their male peers to apply for promotions: Women won’t apply for promotions unless they believe they meet 100 percent of the qualifications for the job, while men will if they think they meet even half the qualifications. The problem isn’t that women are locked out of top jobs, say Kay and Shipman — it’s that too often, they simply take themselves out of the running.

Up to a point, Kay and Shipman have a point. What they refer to as "the confidence gap" has been amply documented, and most women will relate to Kay and Shipman’s anecdotes about meetings in which men yak away blithely about even the most half-baked ideas, while smart women with terrific notions seem bent upon undermining themselves the minute they open their mouths. ("Um, so, this is probably kind of a bad idea, so probably I just shouldn’t even waste everyone’s time with it, but I was sort of thinking, you know, um, maybe.…")

Needless to say, there are already plenty of self-help books urging women to stop undermining themselves, own their own expertise, and generally "lean in." And, yes: Women with smart ideas should speak up; women who do high-quality work should ask for raises; women who know their stuff shouldn’t wallow in self-doubt.

But Kay and Shipman go way beyond that.

Women, they note, tend to be underconfident: They underestimate their own knowledge and skills. Men, on the other hand, tend to be overconfident: Compared with women, men are more likely to have an inflated sense of their knowledge and skills. (For instance, Kay and Shipman cite a 2011 study that found, they write, "men consistently rated their performance on a set of math problems to be about 30 percent better than it was.")

Yet this inflated sense of self-worth, Kay and Shipman inform us, has its rewards: Overconfident men are showered with success. People like them! In fact, the bigger blowhards they are — that is, the greater the gulf between their actual knowledge and skills and their inflated sense of their knowledge and skills — the higher their social status. Overconfident men are perceived as self-assured leaders, and raises and promotions flow their way.

One might conclude from this that the challenge for gender equality lies partly in getting women to be less underconfident, partly in getting men to be less overconfident, and partly in getting everyone to understand that the appearance of confidence can mask underlying incompetence, and vice versa. But Kay and Shipman go in a different direction. For them, the lesson for women is clear: "overconfidence can get you far in life." Women, in other words, need to work on becoming more like men.

Please, God, no.

I don’t doubt Kay and Shipman’s conclusion that career success often goes to the overconfident at the expense of the truly competent. (This has the ring of painful truth about it.) But though Kay and Shipman cite several recent studies documenting the career and social status benefits of overconfidence, they give short shrift to the even more numerous studies documenting the costs of overconfidence — which, unfortunately, are often borne not by those with inflated egos, but by all the rest of us.

For instance: Overconfident physicians make more medical errors. Overconfident more car crashes. Overconfident investors make too many trades and lose more money. Overconfident corporate CFOs are "more aggressive in their investing and borrowing," as one researcher put it, with negative effects for the corporate bottom line.

What’s more, classic studies of overconfidence suggest that experts are no better than nonexperts at avoiding overconfidence. In fact, some studies suggest that expertise can increase overconfidence without a corresponding increase in competence. Weirdly, the overconfident become even more overconfident when faced with highly difficult tasks. Put the overconfident into leadership positions, and the stakes simply go up: A 2011 review of the literature on power and overconfidence found that "the experience of power exacerbates overconfidence."

In the realm of political and foreign-policy leadership, overconfidence can be deadly. Indeed, there’s a substantial scholarly literature on overconfidence as a cause of war. U.S. military officials were convinced that Pearl Harbor was invulnerable to Japanese attack; American officials were equally convinced that military success in Vietnam would be a simple matter.

More recent examples come readily to mind. In 2002 and 2003, U.S. officials were overconfident about the validity of intelligence information on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: "We know that Saddam Hussein has chemical and biological weapons," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld blithely proclaimed in November 2002. "And we know he has an active program for the development of nuclear weapons."

Officials were still more overconfident about the odds of military success: the war would be a cakewalk, U.S. troops would be hailed as liberators, and it would all be wrapped up quickly. "I can’t tell you if the use of force in Iraq today would last five days or five weeks or five months," declared Rumsfeld, "but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that."

I’m all in favor of increasing the percentage of women in leadership roles in the United States and around the globe, and insofar as underconfidence is part of what holds back smart and capable women, I’ll be the first to offer pep talks. But Kay and Shipman draw all the wrong lessons from the correlation that male overconfidence has with social status and career success.

If we find a disproportionate number of men in leadership positions because employers — or colleagues, or voters — wrongly equate male overconfidence with competence, the solution isn’t simply to urge women to become more confident. (That’s particularly true given the persistence of double standards. As Kay and Shipman acknowledge, what looks like assertiveness in men is often characterized negatively as aggressiveness in women.)

Instead, let’s work on getting employers and selection bodies — from party nominating committees to talent scouts — to understand that the appearance of confidence may be inversely correlated with actual competence. And let’s urge them to go the extra mile to find the talented women who may not thrust themselves into the limelight. Let’s work on all those overconfident men too. Studies suggest that overconfidence and its costs can be reduced or mitigated, in part through frequent reminders of how dangerous overconfidence can be.

But the last thing we should do is urge women to emulate male overconfidence. If the price of getting more women into leadership positions is that we end up with Donald Rumsfeld in a skirt, will we really be better off?