confidence, gender, and the social psychology of inequality

The Atlantic has a new article called “The Confidence Gap.” Katty Kay and Claire Shipman review the academic literature to discuss one source of gender inequality – the systematic differences in confidence. Roughly speaking, Kay and Shipman suggest that one reason that men are more likely to rise faster through careers is that men are simply overconfident. The fortune cookie version of the argument is that women will apply for a job only if they are sure that they 100%  qualified, while men will take a shot if they are half qualified.

A few comments: While I believe that sexism exists, the article is consistent with a “sexism without sexists” style argument as well. In other words, if A and B compose half the population but A applies for raises 66% of the time and B applies 33% of the time, you will very quickly get inequality even when bosses do not consider gender.

A policy observation from some of the experimental work. Kay and Shipman describe an experiment where men and women subjects try to solve a puzzle and initially men do better because they answer almost all questions. Women will try only when they are sure of the answer. When women are required to do the puzzles, the scores equalize. The policy implication is that raises and promotions should be routine. People are automatically considered for raises and promotions, or everyone will be considered if the situation arises.

The article has a lot to think about for folks interested in gender and inequality.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 16, 2014 at 12:01 am

6 Responses

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  1. Do you mean a “sexism without sexists” argument?



    April 16, 2014 at 12:21 am

  2. Thanks! Tho “sexism with sexists” is a logically consistent theory as well…



    April 16, 2014 at 2:40 am

  3. Maybe men are not more confident than women, they just use another strategy: they always give it a try, whatever they think about their chances of positive results. Depending on the situation, it might be more effective to always try or, like women seem to do, to be more efficient (rate of successful attempts on total attempts).


    Tatiana Fumasoli

    April 16, 2014 at 3:43 am

  4. All the (non-sociological) research cited in the article maps on nicely with sociological work on status and expectations, particularly double-standards for competence. Women’s lower confidence, or higher standards for self, don’t emerge out of thin air (and I’m not as sold on the biological arguments as the authors seem to be). Men and women have both internalized cultural messages that favor men and suggest there are stricter ability standards for women. The beauty of the work in status characteristics and expectations states is that it shows that many of the negative effects of gender are status effects and can be evoked in these “confident men” when they are put in low status positions.

    I am torn because I appreciate the attention to social psychological issues related to aspirations and achievement, but I hate to see it so separated from culture and structure (and the reality that women’s achievement is, in fact, evaluated differently than men’s well beyond the “confident women are labeled bitches” trope) when there is high quality work out there that attends to those issues. It rings of victim-blaming. It is not lost on me that my own work on impostorism does some of this, but I am ultimately interested in the cultural and structural sources of impostorism and I needed to show impostorism has a tangible effect to sell research in that area. I am all for examining the role individuals have in their futures, as long as there is adequate attention to the contexts and cultures people make those decisions in. The article – as well as some, but not all, of the research cited in it – falls short in that respect.



    April 16, 2014 at 12:16 pm

  5. I got so carried away with the comment, I forgot to link my point to Fabio’s suggestion:

    It is one thing to have everyone go up for promotion or raises (and it would certainly erase some of the inequality), but we also need to consider how evaluator expectations might, in fact, be different for the women and men who do go up. Women might not be imagining an unfair world where they need to be better-prepared than men, but accurately anticipating the reality of the world they live in.



    April 16, 2014 at 12:33 pm

  6. I think, in terms of confidence, Tatiana is right. It is simply a strategy; if a man has any sort of hope left in his being, he will try, whether he is confident or not.

    I have noticed, however, that it seems to me that the women bring the patriarchy, so to speak. Or more clearly, some type of hierarchy, and in many cases the hierarchy subsequently seems more important to them than getting stuff done. They can be ridiculously over confident based on their social status, credentials, etc… things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with getting the task done.

    This is most easily seen in the fact that women are the majority of the faithful filling the pews of various religions that feminists seem to hate. These religions are not, in fact, catering to men, but to women, many of whom prefer to think of themselves as better than ‘that sort of women.’



    April 16, 2014 at 1:42 pm

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