Are women less confident than men?
Nicolette Rubinsztein reflects on her experience of confidence, especially as a career mum, and what women should know, following two women’s networking events at the Actuaries Institute last month.

On Tuesday 22 August in Melbourne and the following day in Sydney, the Institute held networking sessions where I asked the question: are women less confident than men? The broad consensus across both groups was “yes,” women are less confident than men.

This is reinforced by a survey by Women’s Agenda as part of International Women’s Day this year, which you may recall had a theme of Be Bold for Change.

The survey asked more than 2,000 women what they want from their careers, and what they think could get in the way. It found that there was no shortage of ambition. It then asked the question: “what obstacle is in the way of your ambitions in the next 24 months?” You might think that the biggest obstacle would be childcare costs or caring responsibilities, or finances or lack of employer support. However, confidence came up as the number one factor.

 “More than half of respondents (51%) ticked ‘confidence in my abilities’ as an obstacle”

This is certainly consistent with my own experience. I feel like lack of confidence has been a dominant theme in my life. If I look back on the low points, the first one was when I left school and went to university. Despite having done quite well academically at school, I felt like a fraud. I thought that at university, when you really had to think, that I would get discovered. I fully expected to fail.

The other low points were my maternity leaves. Each time, I would think “do they want me back? Do they need me? Is the person doing my job doing a better job than me?”  You would think that having twice returned from maternity leave successfully, that during my third maternity leave I wouldn’t be plagued by these thoughts. However, I’m afraid to say I was!

Group discussion at the Sydney Networking Event


Consequently, I was very happy to discover a book on this exact issue – The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. 

A New York Times bestseller,it claims that women’s lower confidence is due to our tendency to “over-think,” partnered with our desire to be liked and to please. We are also more vulnerable to perfectionism, rumination, depression, inertia and fear of failure.

That sounds like quite a worrying list, but many of them are the flip side of what makes women great in the workplace.

The book delves into the reasons why women are less confident than men. It concludes that it is a combination of conditioning, the difference in how men and women’s brains work and hormones. On this last one, it turns out that testosterone is a good contributor to confidence and women have less of it!

Of course, there are also plenty of women that are very confident. There are also men that are less confident. Mike Cannon Brooks, co-founder of Atlassian brought this to life is his TEDx talk on the imposter syndrome

However, back to women. If you accept the premise that, on average, women are less confident than men, this brings us to another question. What should we do about it?

I’m inclined to think that simple awareness is a big part of the solution. Obviously, awareness by both men and women. I wish I had read The Confidence Code book 20 years ago,. I think it would have made for a smoother ride.

Some of the suggestions from the audience in the Women’s networking sessions were:

  • Faking it – I think there is a time and place for faking confidence. However, most women would like a work environment where they can just be themselves
  • Not being afraid to ask “silly questions”.
  • Focussing on outcomes, rather than hours worked.

These are all good suggestions.

On a more practical note, one of the things I’ve got into the habit of doing is using my husband as a sounding board when I’m thinking of a new opportunity or a challenge. That might not sound like a particularly liberated feminist thing to do.  However it works! I’m consistently surprised by how different his approach is. And each time it challenges my thinking and gets me to move (slightly) out of my comfort zone. So, that’s my suggestion – try to use a confident male significant other, friend or family member as a sounding board when you next apply for a job, ask for a salary rise or want to negotiate something.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic of Women’s Confidence – please feel free to comment on the article below.

Missed this event? Catch up on the Member Networking – ‘Not Guilty’ Session Presentation, Audio and Video.

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