Dr. Nancy Wayne

Scientist, Educator & Speaker

The Competence/Confidence Conundrum

IMG_2100 Haystack 1Studies have consistently shown that women are often underconfident, while men are overconfident relative to actual competence in their area of work (Kay and Shipman, 2014).

The negative impact of this lack of confidence is that well-educated, talented women won’t get ahead in the workforce, and when they do it’s for less salary than men. But, women walk a fine line when it comes to behaving with confidence – this is considered by both men and women to be an attractive and admirable trait in men; not so in women. When women lack confidence and are uneasy in leadership roles, in school or in their careers, we are disenfranchising half of our population that has the potential to make significant contributions to the professional workforce.

Personally, being well liked and admired among my friends and family is what matters to me. I don’t really care if I’m well liked at work, as long as I’m being recognized and appropriately compensated for my skills and dedication.

Examples from the literature show that:

  • Competent women underestimate their test scores on exams (Dahlbom et al, 2011; Pazicni and Bauer, 2014)
  • Competent women’s lack of confidence causes them to leave STEM fields (Cech et al, 2011)
  • Both men and women believe that women make poor leaders, leading to gender bias in leadership (Wayne et al., 2010)
  • Women don’t negotiate salary (Babcock and Laschever, 2009; Lo Sasso et al, 2011)

What can we do to compensate for these cultural norms and have the confidence our competence warrants?

Confidence boosters:

  • Make a list of the work-related skills that you excel at and your professional accomplishments. This can take the form of a regularly updated resume or curriculum vitae.
  • What can YOU do to promote your skills, get recognition for these skills, and turn that recognition into something of value to you (promotion, awards, speaker invitations, more research or office space, etc.)?
  • What can you do to get OTHERS to promote your skills?
  • Remind yourself on a regular basis of your skill set and your accomplishments.

This is one of the topics that I offer as a Workshop. Click here for more information. For a terrific review of this particular workshop in action, see Professor Jill Schneider’s blog.


Babcock and Laschever (2009) The costs of not negotiating. Harvard Business Review, Blog Network / Best Practices. https://hbr.org/2009/01/is-talent-going-to-waste-in-yo/

Cech et al (2011) Professional Role Confidence and Gendered Persistence in Engineering. American Sociological Review 76(5): 641–666. http://web.mit.edu/anthropology/pdf/articles/silbey/silbey_gender_in_engineering.pdf

Dahlbom et al (2011) Gender and overconfidence: are girls really overconfident? Applied Economics Letters 18(4): 325-327. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13504851003670668#abstract

Kay and Shipman (2014) The confidence gap. The Atlantic, May 2014 issue. http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/04/the-confidence-gap/359815/

Lo Sasso et al (2011) The $16,819 Pay Gap For Newly Trained Physicians: The Unexplained Trend Of Men Earning More Than Women. Health Affairs 30(2): 193-201. http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/30/2/193.full

Pazicni and Bauer (2014) Characterizing illusions of competence in introductory chemistry students. Chem. Educ. Res. Pract. 15: 24-34. http://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/2014/rp/c3rp00106g#!divAbstract

Wayne et al (2010) Gender differences in leadership amongst first-year medical students in the small-group setting. Academic Medicine 85(8): 1276-1281. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3315611/



This entry was posted on March 22, 2015 by and tagged , , , .


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