Girls, Confidence & Academia

By |2014-10-23T15:18:41+00:00October 23rd, 2014|Uncategorized|1 Comment

Last week I came across an article on the ‘confidence gap’ in academia in which academic writing coach Theresa MacPhail tells us she witnesses a disparity between her male and female students: the women tend to be far less confident than the men. In her words:

‘While all of my students had trouble finding their voice or sticking to a writing schedule, some of my female students seemed to have an additional – and less technical – problem: a crippling lack of confidence. After a year of working intensely with Ph.D. and master’s candidates, I slowly realized that my female students were more likely than the men to feel as if something was fundamentally lacking about either their projects or their skills.’

I have come across the same phenomenon talking to PhD candidates, although slightly differently. In my experience both men and women struggle with confidence issues when writing a PhD. As I have written about before: ‘it is not just you’. Even the most seemingly confident and competent of your PhD colleagues may be (and possibly are) struggling with feelings of self-doubt, male or female, and ‘confident’ or not. But, and this is the fork in the road where things turn a bit darker for us girls, the main difference I observe is that for women these feelings are more persistent than for men.

(Bit of a warning: I will be talking in monumental generalisations in this post. If this is a trigger for you, please stop reading here. Please don’t take the stereotypes too literally: I don’t think ‘the’ man or ‘the’ woman exists. We live in a wonderfully complex world and are wonderfully complex beings. Maybe gender doesn’t even exist – in my more philosophical moments I do entertain that notion. But for now, for practical reasons, modeling reality helps understand it. Lest we not confuse the two.)

The men I have worked with, even if riddled with anxiety about their PhD project to start, seem to respond better to positive external feedback. Once their project is ‘objectively’ more on track, their natural confidence returns, and they move on. For women the lack of confidence seems more insidious, more internalised. Positive feedback helps, but not quite to the same extent. Underconfidence seems more of a permanent feature.

Apparently it takes more for us women to feel capable (even if we know we’re capable). That in itself causes shame. Confessing to having these feelings causes shame. Because what could be more self-defeating than an unnecessary and apparently self-inflicted crippling lack of confidence? Why do we do this to ourselves? Why don’t we value ourselves and our work more? Why aren’t we ‘above’ these feelings. It seems so silly.

I know I have asked myself these questions many times, and it feels shameful to admit that I am ‘one of those women’. Yet I am. Or, I hope to say, was (OK, am, but working on it, like all of us, or I hope at least more of us).  So let’s talk about self-doubt and self-confidence, no matter how uncomfortable. Let’s try to change some of these dynamics. Let’s see if we can handle this propensity with skill.

1. It’s not just you. It’s all of us. And it’s not our fault.

It’s shocking to discover you belong to a gender that systematically underestimates its capability. It’s equally shocking to discover you share the world with a gender that systematically overestimates its capability, and by means of that alone is better rewarded in the material world of jobs and money and achievement and esteem. There goes meritocracy, if you ever believed in it to start. Read this article, about ‘The Confidence Gap’ by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman and be stunned (Please do read it. You will be stunned). The consistency in the research findings Kay and Shipman discuss is sensational: Men honestly and consistently overestimate themselves, while women honestly and consistently understimate themselves. There is no relation with objective capability. It seems that women are socialised (or maybe even born) to feel less confident and act less confidently than men, which creates a tangible disadvantage in the competitive world of work – not to speak of the emotional discomfort that structurally dealing with difficult feelings like underconfidence brings. What a shame. What a loss.

Since my undergraduate years at university I have had many a conversation about the topic of gender, mostly with male senior academics (white ones – I only go for the real deal). They observe the same, sometimes framed as a complaint, sometimes as an observation, sometimes as a wish for change and a desire to help: girls are more modest than boys when it comes to their capability, their contributions, their achievements. In short: boys tend towards self-inflation and overconfidence, girls tend towards self-deprecation and underconfidence.   Self-doubt To me, the consistency of this tendency to doubt is an important point. It’s not a personal failure: it seems to be a collective tendency. Simply knowing you may lean this way, towards undeserved modesty and doubt, for whatever twisted reason, may help overcome it at a rational level. If you know you are more capable than you feel, you are less likely to blindly buy into the illusion of not being enough in some way. It is a step in the right direction.

2. Internal versus external attribution

On to the second point Kay and Shipman raise: there seems to be a general tendency for women to assume they are to blame for their failures, while chance or circumstance or other people should be credited for their successes.

Hands up, who recognises this?

I do, I am embarrassed to admit. Whenever things go wrong my first default thought is: ‘Is it me? Maybe it’s me.’ Now, granted, that is already a question, which is a bit better than a statement, but I am not sure how much better!

Kay and Shipman give the example of PhD students taking a difficult class, where male students typically react with an objective, or at least externalised: ‘This is a tough class’, while women tend to react by immediately questioning their capability: ‘Maybe I can’t do this. Maybe I am not good enough.’ It is not hard to see how the internalisation of difficulty might lead to a failure in performance. A hurdle can be overcome, even if it is a steep one. But if the problem is YOU, what are you going to do about it? That’s complicated! And debilitating. And impossible.

I have too many examples from my own academic trajectory that scream this stereotype, so I’ll share. (Maybe if we share our stories we will recognize point 1. ‘It’s not just you’)

Rewind to many years back: When I was at the LSE doing my Master’s degree, I wanted to take a course which promised to bring together economics, politics, philosophy and literature. It was called simply ‘Social Market Economy in Germany.’ The lecturer was an economist and the class wasn’t in our regular curriculum, as you needed to have a background in economics to participate. I had no background in economics to speak of, but for some reason I decided I wanted to take this course, so I made an appointment with the lecturer and he accepted my application. (If you are thinking: she is out of her mind, signing up for an economics course at one of the most competitive universities in the world called the London School of ECONOMICS with no background in economics – you have a point. I see that now.) It won’t come as a surprise to you that the more economic modules of the course were completely over my head. I vividly remember one lecture on financial markets after which I burst into tears on the Tube on my way home because I had not understood even the very basics of what the lecturer was trying to say. Or say, not say really – he was writing equations on a whiteboard for 90 minutes straight, and I didn’t know math! Now, important point – did I say to myself: “This course is over your head, or at least parts of it are, but that was to be expected? It is a matter of training.” Of course not. No. I said to myself: “You can’t do this. You are not good enough, and never will be. Why are you trying, even?” Self-flagellation much? Female disposition: internalising difficulty.

Fast forward to the end of the year, the end of this story: I end up getting top marks for the course. A distinction. Best of everyone there. 70 out of 70. At the LSE that is typically reserved for God. Once I heard my marks my first reaction was: ‘This isn’t possible.’ My second reaction was: ‘I must have gotten lucky’. (I am practically banging my head on the desk writing this!) Naturally, if I get top marks for an impossibly challenging course, at an outrageously prestigious institution, this must be luck, not merit! I must have batted my eyelashes or said something nice! My effort or talent can’t have anything to do with it! Female disposition: externalising my success.

What strikes me when I recall this episode is that the way I act and the way I feel at the time seem completely disconnected. If I objectively assess how I act: I handled it all pretty well by playing to my strengths, not my weaknesses when I studied and wrote. It  worked. (Oh, it was a fantastic course if I just did with words what the beta folks did with equations!) But the emotional turmoil: if only I could have been kinder to myself, and not doubted myself so much. I cringe to think of the hurt.

For me, maybe also for you if you recognize this: let’s be vigilant about what we internalise and externalise. Maybe we are capable and are rewarded for our effort. Maybe, when things are difficult, they are simply difficult, which has nothing to do with our capability. Sounds good to me.  

3. Participation, perfectionism and being ‘passive’

On to the next point of pain. Shipman and Kay point out that the combination of underconfidence and perfectionism leads us women to hesitate and hold back, even when we are capable. We don’t answer questions until we are completely sure of the answer and we edit till we are blue in the face before submitting something. Again, this seems to be a typically female problem.

Once again, my head hurts to think of how well the stereotype fits. At the LSE, especially, I have been accused of being too ‘passive’ while in fact I was working, just not out loud. (I wish I had been louder. A bit more, at least.) My tutor, the lovely Gordon Smith whom I always talk about, spotted this tendency miles away and scolded me for it, even before the first seminar had taken place. I must have had “PASSIVE” written on my forehead.

I have probably told this story before, but I will tell it again. In our first meeting Gordon said (barked) that he expected me to speak up at length in every single class I attended, and that I report back to him minutely concerning my ‘contribution to the academic debate at the LSE’. I was livid because of the way he addressed me (it seemed our meetings involved a lot of tantrum and yelling (his, not mine!)), but he got me exactly where he wanted me: participating. Well sort of. Old habits die hard, and later, during my PhD years, my supervisor once again felt he had to engage me: ‘We have to get you talking more,’ he said to me, waiting in line for lunch. He was right. Some of my fondest memories of the PhD include those of his seminar, once I indeed plucked up the courage to speak up more. I dare say I became a political scientist, a real one, by doing so. (I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Gordon talking in the background all along: my supervisor and Gordon spoke on the phone frequently, as they were co-editors at West European Politics. Gordon at one point wrote me a letter saying: “I hope Peter Mair will sort you out. He does not stand for passivity and equivocation.” Thanks Gordon, for that supportive note, as always!) I really do have to give credit to my mentors here: they saved me from not having a voice.

Is this familiar? Do you hold back and stay quiet until you are ‘perfect’? Until you know more, and feel more confident? Maybe we don’t have to be perfect to participate. Maybe we have a valuable voice already. Maybe it needs to be heard. It needs to be heard. Speak up, darlings, we need to be heard.  

4. Supporting yourself

The tragedy of course, is that no one consciously chooses to engage in confidence-defeating patterns. They are automatic, learned behaviours, which we may have no or very little influence over. According to Kay and Shipman, the solution to the vicious cycle of underconfidence is to act:

“When women don’t act, when we hesitate because we aren’t sure, we hold ourselves back. But when we do act, even if it’s because we’re forced to, we perform just as well as men do. (…) To become more confident, women need to stop thinking so much and just act.”

I agree. But I would like to add to that: to be able to act we need to deal with the emotional side of it. The feeling of underconfidence. Only if we are comfortable with the discomfort can we learn to overcome our tendency to doubt and hesitate and be ‘passive’. It starts with defusing self-doubt, internally, and it can be done.

For me, personally, an important turning point came a couple of years ago. When my health crisis left me flattened, with no energy at all, I discovered, to my dismay, that I was wasting lots of energy on doubt and feeling insecure. I also discovered I was sick and tired of it. I was fed up with keeping myself small for reasons beyond my rational comprehension! So I decided to change at least those parts I could influence: making a shift to supporting myself and giving myself the benefit of the doubt, when in doubt (Big change that. Kind of liberating). That doesn’t mean the tendency to doubt no longer exists. It still does, but that’s OK. I understand it better now and I am compassionate with myself. What I have changed is my engagement. When I notice myself stuck in this cycle, I remind myself I don’t have to feed this tendency. I can just let it be. It’s not reality. The pain of doubting myself is unnecessary and no longer one I want to bear.

It frees up an amazing amount of energy once you say: fuck it, I no longer care whether I am ‘good enough’ blah blah blah. It’s not an interesting conversation to have, whether in my own head or in the outside world. Let’s just move forward with whatever I want to work on. Let it be enough. That is the only trick. Because it is more than enough.

For my PhD, specifically, it meant moving forward, one inch at a time, even if I could only do little due to my energy constraints. Of course, it ended well: my PhD was received as best political science thesis of the year at the EUI. Naturally, with my female tendencies, I want to say: ‘I don’t know how that happened! I must have gotten lucky!’ But I will spare you. Let me be male and cocky and say: ‘Of course it was the best of its year. How could it not be?’

What is your perspective? Do you recognize any of these female tendencies? Do you hold back because you feel you are ‘not good enough’? Do you attribute your success to external circumstances? Let me know! Also, as always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

Write a More Inspired, Happier PhD Subscribe & Let Me Show You How

You’ll also receive a copy of ‘Finding Your Academic Voice’

* indicates required

If you found this post helpful, share it? I appreciate it!

Go to Top