BBC Broadcast Journalist Katty Kay Urges University of Michigan Female Students to Close the Confidence Gap

Shannon Beeman
September 28, 2015

Women now make up half of the U.S. workforce and are gaining traction in middle management. But something is blocking their career pathways to top executive positions at leading companies, where female CEOs are few and far between. What’s holding women back is their acute lack of confidence, said BBC broadcast journalist and best-selling author Katty Kay, who spoke at this year’s Entrepalooza conference at the University of Michigan on Friday, Sept. 25.

“There’s not just a confidence gap, but a confidence chasm that separates the sexes,” said Kay, who is the lead anchor for BBC World News America and the co-author (with Claire Shipman) of two books, Womenomics and The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance ─ What Women Should Know. “Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels.”

In researching their books, Kay and Shipman talked with other highly successful women and interviewed psychologists to gain insights into the confidence gap. What they found is that women routinely underestimate their abilities and performance while men have a tendency to overestimate both. Compared to their male counterparts, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions at work and often attribute their success on the job to being “lucky” rather than talented. When it comes to negotiating salaries and raises, women typically place a lower value on their abilities and ask for less money, less often than men do.

Where does this confidence gap originate? Kay said it begins early in life for girls, who are rewarded for good behavior and perfectionism and shielded from danger and disappointment. Boys, in contrast, learn through sports to be risk takers, strong competitors and resilient players, even in the face of failure. “We are setting up a cycle where girls are praised for not upsetting the applecart, being disruptive or drawing attention to themselves,” said Kay, who acknowledged she had fallen into this same parent trap in raising her eldest daughter as “a classic good girl” who helped to care for three younger siblings and oversee household duties. “We need to teach girls to take risks and fail and then keep going. We also need to discourage them from trying to be perfect and encourage them to be bad girls rather than good girls all the time.”

During her 25-year career at BBC, Kay faced many situations both inside and outside the newsroom that challenged her self-assuredness and forced her to develop her own credo for confidence. “I’ve learned that my abilities are higher than I think, and I’ve learned that I can learn in a new job situation,” she said. “I’ve also learned to look at my own track record and to see not only the downside of risk, but also the upside.”

The good news, Kay told her U-M audience, which included many female undergraduate and graduate students, is that the confidence gap between the sexes can be closed. Drawing on her own experiences and insights, Kay offered the following advice to women who want to develop a sense of confidence that will propel them to greater heights in their professional and social lives:

  • Believe in your talent and abilities
  • Take action and risks that push you outside your comfort zone
  • Be willing to accept failure and try again
  • Learn to learn
  • Avoid ruminating, second-guessing and over thinking
  • Stop assuming the blame when things go wrong and crediting other people or circumstances when things go right
  • Promote yourself and your capabilities
  • Support workplace changes that encourage and reward other women

In conclusion, Kay said that the unique talents and experiences women bring to the table can play out well in the world of business and help companies outperform the competition. “We want to be authentic and don’t want to lose that quality,” she remarked. “But we don’t want to let the confidence gap hold us back.”

Zell Lurie Institute Executive Director Stewart Thornhill recognized the 2015 Zell, Mondry, Kinnear and Diener scholars at the beginning of Entrepalooza. The event was sponsored by the Zell Lurie Institute, the Michigan Entrepreneur & Venture Club, the Center for Entrepreneurship, the School of Information, Innovate Blue and Ann Arbor SPARK.