Katty Kay: Closing The Confidence Gap

Jane Lu

Michelle King, a leader in UN women’s gender innovation work, recently interviewed Katty Kay, anchor of BBC World News America and co-author of The Confidence Code and The Confidence Code for Girls for the SHE Innovates podcast. On the podcast, Kay talks about perfectionism and why the “good girl” routine can be dangerous. She shares how women can demonstrate confidence in the workplace and achieve the careers they want and deserve.

Kay and her colleagues have previously written about the value of women in the workforce. She has interviewed women in senior positions across industries and found they often credited their achievements to luck. Comparatively, men take credit for their success. Kay says there’s a significant confidence gap between men and women in the workforce, even though confidence levels are similar in personal relationships.

The finding that confidence levels are similar in personal relationships is backed by a lot of social science research. For example, a 2003 study by social psychologist David Dunning and Washington State University psychologist Joyce Ehrlinger explored “How chronic self-views influence (and potentially mislead) estimates of performance.” In a scientific reasoning quiz, women were more likely to underestimate their abilities – and men to overestimate them – despite their similar performance.

Confidence vs. competence at work

In a related study, Cameron Anderson, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business, examined how overconfidence enhances social status. When it comes to success and professional status, his research finds that confidence matters as much – or even more – than competence. Students who are more confident tend to have higher status in a group, and everyone else protects people who are overconfident.

Kay says this has a negative undertone because women put a premium on competence. She tells women to take this as a learning opportunity and redefine “talent” to include the notion of confidence. King notes that being confident can be a “double-bind” for women – it can come off as arrogance, but it’s needed to demonstrate confidence required to appear competent. When women behave as men do, they are often penalized professionally and socially. Kay shares common concerns: “Do you have to be a jerk to be confident? Is it throwing your weight around? Is it speaking longest and loudest in meetings?… Is it a form of acting that we aren’t particularly comfortable with?” It’s hard to be confident when acting in a way that doesn’t feel like yourself.

How to be “authentically” confident

Kay finds the best way to define confidence is: “the stuff that turns thoughts into actions.” Women tend to undervalue their ability. If they can align the perception and reality of their abilities, they have the capacity to be authentic.

The Confidence Code for Girls is a book that helps young girls practice and live a confident life. Poor confidence starts much younger than most people realize. “There is a pretty startling drop-off in confidence around the age of about eight, nine, and 10… As girls enter this age, they become more concerned with failing and preoccupied with perfectionism.” Kay hopes the book can serve as a guide for girls at this age to maintain their confidence levels.

Advice for helping young women build confidence

Compliments commonly directed to girls, like, “you’re such a good girl,” are rarely directed to boys. Kay says, “you have a section of your classroom that you can rely on to be well-behaved, and we reward them for that.” But the strive for girls to be “good” quickly becomes a pursuit for perfection. Kay advises adults to monitor the pressure they put on perfectionism: “What better place to fail than in the safety of your own home?”

Young women are good at being great friends but don’t often encourage risk-taking. Women commonly “catastrophize” the results of asking for a promotion or a risky assignment. The downsides are generally much less severe than they imagine. Kay suggests “internalizing the idea that you need to be honest about your achievements and abilities…Don’t sell yourself short in your own mind.”

Listen to Katty Kay’s interview on the SHE Innovates podcast.

SHE Innovates is a podcast that shares the stories, challenges, and triumphs of women across innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship. Listen to all our podcasts on PodBean.


Jane Lu

About Jane Lu

Jane is a writer and marketing intern at SAP. She is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in English at the University of Waterloo. While Jane is currently studying in Waterloo, she is originally from Toronto.