Cracking the confidence code – Time to move on from thinking “you were just lucky”

“How many more studies do we need to know that men overestimate their potential and women underestimate theirs –when facts show their performance is on par?"

“When a man, imagining his future career, looks in the mirror, he sees a CEO staring back. A woman would never be so presumptuous".

"Beware, confidence must be genuine and a core component of your capability, arguably more important than your competence."
Suzette Corr, Group GM Talent & Culture and GM Human Resources Australia at ANZ

Okay, so I replaced 'Senator' in these lines I've adapted from activist Marie Wilson with 'CEO' but you get the picture.

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I recently came across these images reading a new work from “Womenomics" authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, veteran Washington journalists. At first blush, with a title 'The Confidence Code – The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know', I thought “oh no, here we go again".

Trying to fix the women, I thought. What is it this time? Mentoring? Body language? To say I was sceptical is being polite.

I also struggle with gender generalisations – we all know there's always far more nuance in any population than such broad sweeps convey. Anyway, in part because a respected colleague had asked me to review the book for BlueNotes, I read on.

And I'm really pleased I did. I was surprised at how well researched and thought provoking this exploration of women and confidence is, way beyond charm school rhetoric. It balances the understanding of how confidence manifests differently in women and men (the science), with how to gain the levels you may want in your life (the art), with a genuineness that helps put you, as much as the authors and their subjects, in the frame.

Now I'll struggle to do this work justice but here's my draught of the good oil on the complicated relationship many women (and I suspect some men too) have with confidence - and what we can do to make it our new significant other!

  1. What is it?

    Confidence is more complex than the standard dictionary definition would indicate. Kay and Shipman talked with leading psychologists and neurologists. I'm a fan of this take from one of the researchers interviewed by Kay and Shipman: “confidence is the purity of action produced by a mind free of doubt". Now if you struggle to envisage ever having a mind free of doubt, try this one from psychologist Richard Petty: “confidence is the stuff that turns thoughts into actions". Maybe that will get you across the room to introduce yourself to the CEO! But beware, confidence must be genuine and a core component of your capability, arguably more important than your competence. Don't confuse it with bravado or be seduced into thinking you can 'fake it till you make it'. You won't!

  2. Where's it made?

    So to the science. It appears grandma was right, women and men are different and science has proved it. Brain studies such as Richard Kanaan's 'Gender differences in white matter microstructure' and JM Coates and J Herbert's “Endogenous steroids and financial risk taking on a London trading floor" (a must read for those of us in banking) show a fascinating web of biological reasons why women may ultimately manifest confidence in different ways to men.

    It's not just hormones such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin that play a role, it's our genes plus a wee brain part called the 'cingulate gyrus' referred to as the 'worrywart centre' which just so happens to be larger in women than men (useful when foraging for food but not so much for the rough and tumble of the corporate jungle!). To complicate this further, how we've been parented will play a part in shaping the impact of our genetic makeup - influencing our anxiety and self–assurance.

  3. How can you get hold of it?

    So after reams of research and talking to what seems to be every expert in this field, Kay and Shipman boil confidence down to these essentials:


    So let's say you pluck up courage and walk across the room to introduce yourself to Mike Smith. Now many things could happen at this point (including tripping and breaking an arm) but let's look at two scenarios.

    Scenario 1, Mike and your mirror neurons magically connect and you have a Christine Lagardesque impact.

    Scenario 2, Mike and your mirror neurons are nano-seconds from a connection when Ms/Mr Overconfident Ambition with similar intent arrives first and you're stranded with outstretched arm and gobsmacked mouth.

    What happens next is important. Do you fall apart and worry that was a disaster? No you congratulate yourself for taking a risk! You build confidence by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and importantly having a go, the more you do that the stronger your growth, you spiral upward.

    I'm now testing myself daily and I'm disappointed if at the end of each day I haven't failed at something - because that means I've played it too safe. I can't tell you the pleasure of re-running the day in your mind and reflecting on failures with a sense of joy! Embrace fail fast, fail often and dump perfection.


    I reckon Rodin should have sculpted a woman with the message 'Stop'. Women need to think less (I dare women reading this not to relate). When something's been said to you or hasn't gone your way, don't dwell, don't extrapolate, draw a line and move on.

    Accept overthinking could be caused by your XY chromosomes but don't let that be an excuse for its persistence, it's just an explanation. Consider other options, reframe and mind your mind (research shows meditation helps).


    It's ghastly but, sadly, research shows we (men and women) don't like women who speak up more than peers. However we do like men who do! According to Yale psychologist Victoria Brescoll, we discount outspoken women's competence by 14 per cent and bump up the men's by 10 per cent. Add that to the gender pay gap and it's insult to injury.

    Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant have suggested in one of their blogs, Speaking White Female, ways to interrupt this gender bias at a systemic level but in the meantime whatever you say and however you say it, make it genuine to you. Don't lose your unique empathy, your warmth, your ability to listen.

    Power comes when confidence is in our core and there's a wonderful quote in The Confidence Code from Christine Lagarde (a role model for confidence if ever there was one): “to dare the difference…and make it your selling point".

  4. What will it do for you?

    Look it's up to you. My hope though is if you've read this, you'll at least explore its relevance for you. What is it you want and how building your confidence, your self-assurance will help you grow, help you be heard and help you to lead.

    And I wish you this, a wonderful statement from one of the women scientists involved in this research: “I feel a spectacular kind of lock-and-key relationship with the world – I can achieve - and I'm connected. Life on confidence can be a remarkable thing".

The last word goes to Katty Kay who says “we're not asking people to become somebody different. We are just asking them to bring their perceptions of their abilities in line with their abilities. When you're there, you're in the sweet spot".

So over to you……

PS There's so much more in the book – I highly recommend a cover to cover read (especially if you have daughters!).

'The Confidence Code – The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know', Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, Harper Collins 2014.

Suzette Corr is Group General Manager Talent & Culture and General Manager Human Resources Australia at ANZ.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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