Boardroom Confidence: Nature, Nurture, or Does it Matter?

Earlier today, I read this opinion piece in The New York Times about how girls, more so than boys, tend to work harder in school but fail to pull as much rank as their male counterparts later in life at work. While I’m always hesitant to jump on the “gender card” as an excuse to explain away any mass behavior, the article does bring up some interesting patterns about how males vs. females are brought up.

Here’s a part that stood out to me:

“When investigating what deters professional advancement for women, the journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman found that a shortage of competence is less likely to be an obstacle than a shortage of confidence. When it comes to work-related confidence, they found men are far ahead. ‘Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in,’ they wrote. ‘Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect.’”

If this is true, it begs the question: Where does confidence come from? Is it something that we’re born with, or something that we pick up from cultural cues along the way? In other words, are we bringing up our girls to be less confident than men? Or is there something just hard-wired into men that makes them a little more fearless in their lives?

I’d believe either version of the story to be true. But, for the sake of simplicity, let’s explore these as two separate possibilities for now to see what we might learn from each. Ready for a bit of gender philosophy? Buckle in.

Version A: Assume that men are born with more “pre-programmed” confidence than women.

Again, this is just a thought exercise. But let’s play this out for a minute to see what might come out of it. Let’s assume that, for whatever reason, men and women are born with different “confidence baselines.” You might make the case that men needed more confidence early on, as they were the ones hunting animals and big game to kill and eat. You need to be a little insane to chase down a tiger. I imagine it might behoove you to be a little over-confident in your efforts to go get it.

You might also make the biological case. That, because of how humans literally get made, men are incentivized by reproducing with as many people as possible. And this, in itself, puts a prize on confidence in order to seek and select viable mates. You might also add that, because of how long it takes to actually make a human, women need to be more protective during that “incubation” period. You probably don’t want a pregnant woman chasing a tiger through the savannah. Not that I have experience with tigers, savannahs, or even pregnancy for that matter. I’m just saying — it seems a little reckless to put two lives at risk, rather than just one.

If all this is true, then this means it’ll take a pretty long time for us to “evolve out” of these tendencies. Even though we no longer require that “fight or flight” confidence gene the same way we used to, it’ll likely take another few thousands years for humans to adapt away from this archaic behavioral trait. Of course, this might be a little demoralizing to women today who want to be President or CEO within the next decade. So what can we do about it?

Version B: Assume that men and women are born on equal footing, and we’re “teaching” women to be less confident.

Now let’s imagine that none of the above is true. Let’s imagine that instead, we know with 100% certainty that men and women are born on equal footing when it comes to confidence. In fact, there’s absolutely nothing different about the level of risks that men vs. women consider taking in their lives. All of the differences we see today, called out in that article, are simply the byproduct of thousands of years worth of gender biases, stacking up slowly into our collective cultural consciousness.

It’s impossible to say how exactly this happened, so let’s just imagine one possible scenario. Maybe there was a man, back in the day, who decided that he would win the power struggle of his people by seizing control and commanding respect. Maybe he started with a pretty basic argument: I have an ego and I have ambition. To win, I need to be on top. Maybe along the way, he looked for examples about why he was the best (and everyone else was inferior). It was easy enough to make a case against women close to him, and whatever benign example he gave (maybe: “I can run faster than you”) started the first known case of gender bias as we know it.

It was all downhill from there. Whatever nuanced perversion of “men are better than women” took place a millennia ago is still present today, whether we like it or not. We encourage girls differently than we encourage boys. Because men always have carried the power, we look to men as the ones with the power. Because men always have portrayed confidence, men become even more confident. Because we just assume women are worse at math, women become worse at math. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that trickles all the way down to pop culture in Harry Potter books. As the New York Times author points out, Hermione Granger, the smartest one in class, turns in an essay with “two rolls of parchment more than Professor Binns asked for” but perpetually deals with anxiety, stress, and a debilitating fear of “never being good enough.” At one point, she even turns to “time travel” as a mechanism to take additional classes and do even more.

In a world where we’re equally competent, yet socially discouraged, can women ever get over this “confidence gap”? Is it possible to “get out of our heads” enough in order to match men on confidence and achieve gender parity in the workplace?

Sadly, just like the biological example, it’s likely that erasing generations’ worth of cultural and gender biases wont’ happen overnight. It will happen slowly, one person at a time. But this, too, may take much longer than the single decade or two when working women today can take on the patriarchy in their careers. So what’s a girl to do?

The impact of women in business today

Here’s the crazy part: Whether we blame biology or millennia-old gender biases, the result is the same: Women are not making it to the top. And the path to parity isn’t easy.

We might look to the dismal state of women representation in business leadership roles today and cry out, “But we’ll never catch up with men!”

Or, we can stop rehashing old news and change how we’re framing this problem. In other words, we might stop trying to catch up with men. Look at it this way: If women play a game where the rules were set by men, then no matter whether it’s biology or bias, it’s going to be pretty hard for women to win. What if, instead, we rewrite the rules of the game?

A couple of years ago at work, I sat in on a meeting presented jointly by a man and a woman. Throughout the discussion, I noticed that the woman was interrupted far more often than the man, both by those of us in the room and even by her partner. I mentioned this to a colleague after the meeting, and two things were decided: One, that we all needed to do a better job of engaging presenters equally. And two, that she needed to get better at speaking up for herself. “If you want to be a CEO, you need to know how to control a boardroom of people.” I agreed at the time, but since then, I’ve wondered: Is that the only way to be a CEO? Or is it just the only way we’ve ever known?

Confidence can’t be the only trait needed to succeed as a successful business person. So why do we keep letting this one characteristic get in the way? And by the way, we’ve rarely taken the time to really step back and define “success” and “business.” Does “success” = more money? Does “business” = a thing that gets you the most money the fastest? And is that really the end goal?

Maybe women are programmed differently than men. Or maybe we’ve simply taught ourselves to act like we are. But whatever the case may be, it’ll take a very long time to achieve equality if we keep playing by today’s rules.

So let’s change the rules of the game so we can play (and win). On our own terms.

Originally published on Dry Erase.

VP @ BolsterTalent, alum of @USV, @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC