By Cari Coats

I’ve been thinking a lot about confidence lately, and how a lack of it plays a huge role in women’s success. My juices have been overflowing, more like boiling, on this topic ever since I read “The Confidence Code” by ABC and BBC journalists, Claire Shipman and Katty Kay. In it, the authors make a strong, evidence-based argument that women have an acute lack of confidence, relative to their male peers, and this greatly impacts our ability to be equally successful in the workplace.

We’re all painfully aware of the gender gap that exists in all sectors of corporate America. In Fortune 500 companies, just 4 percent of the CEOs, 14 percent of the executive officers, and 17 percent of the board members are women. When it comes to compensation, business has been excruciatingly slow to respond. In 1970, women were paid 59 cents for every dollar men made. In the next four decades we protested, fought, got educated and worked our tails off, and by 2010, we were up to 77 cents for every one one of their dollars. I love Sheryl Sandberg’s quote about this, “Forty years and eighteen cents. A dozen eggs have gone up to ten times that amount.”

Studies show that success is equally correlated with competence and confidence. As women, we have the competence thing licked. Women earn more college and graduate degrees then men. Women make up half the workforce. Women are successfully entering more and more fields traditionally dominated by men. And, companies employing women at the leadership level outperform competitors on every measure of profitability. Competence … check!

So, this leads us back to confidence. Here are the sobering facts. A Carnegie Mellon study revealed that men initiate salary negotiations four times as often as women. When women do negotiate they ask for 30 percent less money. At the University of California, researchers found that men overestimate their abilities and performance, women underestimate both, but yet there was no difference in quality of performance. A study by Hewlett-Packard concluded that women applied for promotions only when they met 100 percent of the qualifications, yet men applied when they thought they met 60 percent. I could go on and on.

What’s up with this? Is it nature or nurture? Is this something we learn and so can un-learn, or is it in our DNA? The answer is, of course, “yes” to all of the above. There are definite brain and hormonal differences between men and women that contribute to our thinking and behavior, and ultimately could impact our confidence. This is a very active field of inquiry, with lots of contradictory and controversial findings. Make no mistake, however, female and male brains are enormously more alike than not.

Nurture plays a much more vital role, and it begins at a very early age. If you’ve ever raised little girls and boys, or spent anytime around them in the classroom or playground, you know that Bobby is “rambunctious,” unlike Amelia who is a “perfect angel.” Jimmy learns resilience because he gets into trouble more often than Maddie, and must keep bouncing back. Kate learns perfection because, compared to Michael, that’s what she’s rewarded for. On the sports field, where the benefits of team play and overcoming loss can be huge confidence builders, girls are six times more likely to drop off sports teams, especially during adolescence when self esteem can plummet.

Low confidence becomes a self-fulfilling cycle, which results in inaction. We hesitate because we aren’t 100 percent sure. That need for perfection is a confidence killer. By contrast, confidence is a virtuous cycle. It is a belief in one’s ability to succeed. This belief stimulates action. That action bolsters our belief in our ability to succeed. As a result, confidence accumulates through taking action, succeeding and even failing.

So there’s our answer. We can do something about it, and it begins with over thinking less, and taking action more.

I’ll finish with this story. In my early twenties I had already experienced tremendous success. I was co-host of a nationally syndicated television show. This was due to my competence. Fast-forward five years when a new male co-host was hired to work with me. He had much less experience in a much smaller market but was hired at an equal salary. When I questioned this to the powers that be, I was told, “There a lot of little girls out there that would like to have your job.” The next day, I quit. I thought about it and took action. It was the beginning of my confidence-building journey.

So, I ask you … what would you do if you weren’t afraid?


cari-coatsCari Coats serves as the executive director of the nationally-ranked Center for Advanced Entrepreneurship at Rollins College.