The ‘confidence gap’ between girls and boys, and what it means for them when they grow up

Credit: Sohail Panjwani for CurrentKids


A recent article in the New York Times referenced an older article in The Atlantic, and observed that in general, while girls perform very well in school, they tend to be uncomfortable trying out for the better jobs when they grow up,  and lose out on these to men.

The two women journalists who had written the article in The Atlantic are Claire Shipman, a reporter for ABC News, and Katty Kay, the anchor of BBC World News America. They had interviewed lots of powerful men and women over time and found that there was a major difference in the way that they approached their jobs, so they spent a couple years researching this. This is what they found.

While men were overconfident of their abilities (they believed in themselves), women doubted themselves, and were perfectionists. They interviewed psychologists and more leaders, and wrote about what they called ‘the Confidence Gap’. They suggested that these two variables – seeking perfection and doubting one’s ability were two very powerful negative things that contributed a lot towards holding women back. They were just as qualified as the men were, but were not okay with trying out for the better jobs unless they felt they had all the right qualifications.

Men, on the other hand, were more likely to ‘wing it’ – to trust that they knew about enough to try for the higher positions, and to believe that what they didn’t know, they would figure out.

So what can we do about this?

While there are other differences between men and women – such as different, very powerful hormones that affect our emotions and outlook, the authors suggested that perhaps there are ways in which schooling can change this dynamic a bit, and to instil more confidence in girls while growing up. Here are some of their observations:

  • Girls are praised more in their school years, for their natural tendency to be neater and quieter than boys. They get praised for perfection. Because we all tend to seek praise, the girls start to avoid risk and making mistakes.
  • Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to get into smaller fights, run around and play rough, and tend to get scolded and punished more. So they learn to take this in their stride, and figure out how to deal with this.
  • Boys in general play more team sports, and figure out how to deal with each other and negative comments more than girls do. They learn how to deal with wins and losses without letting it be a reflection of them. They learn that life goes on. Girls stop playing these team sports during their teenage years and tend to spend their time studying and perfecting their knowledge.

These are things that can be changed now!

So girls, go out and try different things, don’t be worried that you won’t be great at them, because just the belief that you will be, can carry you through! And if you make mistakes, there’s a lot you can learn from them.


Adapted from The New York Times and The Atlantic by Sunaina Murthy


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