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For some clues about the role that nurture plays in the confidence gap, let’s look to a few formative places: the elementary-school classroom, the playground, and the sports field. School is where many girls are first rewarded for being good, instead of energetic, rambunctious, or even pushy. But while being a “good girl” may pay off in the classroom, it doesn’t prepare us very well for the real world. As Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychology professor and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, put it to us: “If life were one long grade school, women would be the undisputed rulers of the world.”
Many girls learn to avoid taking risks and making mistakes. This is to their detriment: many psychologists now believe that risk taking, failure, and perseverance are essential to confidence-building. Boys, meanwhile, tend to absorb more scolding and punishment, and in the process, they learn to take failure in stride. “When we observed in grade school classrooms, we saw that boys got eight times more criticism than girls for their conduct,” Dweck writes in Mindset. Complicating matters, she told us, girls and boys get different patterns of feedback. “Boys’ mistakes are attributed to a lack of effort,” she says, while “girls come to see mistakes as a reflection of their deeper qualities.”
What a vicious circle: girls lose confidence, so they quit competing, thereby depriving themselves of one of the best ways to regain it. They leave school crammed full of interesting historical facts and elegant Spanish subjunctives, proud of their ability to study hard and get the best grades, and determined to please. But somewhere between the classroom and the cubicle, the rules change, and they don’t realize it. They slam into a work world that doesn’t reward them for perfect spelling and exquisite manners. The requirements for adult success are different, and their confidence takes a beating.
Yes, women suffer consequences for their lack of confidence—but when they do behave assertively, they may suffer a whole other set of consequences, ones that men don’t typically experience. Attitudes toward women are changing, and for the better, but a host of troubling research shows that they can still pay a heavier social and even professional penalty than men do for acting in a way that’s seen as aggressive. If a woman walks into her boss’s office with unsolicited opinions, speaks up first at meetings, or gives business advice above her pay grade, she risks being disliked or even—let’s be blunt—being labeled a bitch. The more a woman succeeds, the worse the vitriol seems to get. It’s not just her competence that’s called into question; it’s her very character.
In four studies, Bowles and collaborators from Carnegie Mellon found that people penalized women who initiated negotiations for higher compensation more than they did men. The effect held whether they saw the negotiation on video or read about it on paper, whether they viewed it from a disinterested third-party perspective or imagined themselves as senior managers in a corporation evaluating an internal candidate.
It happens, too, in situations that are removed from the negotiating table: when, despite the odds, women find themselves in leadership positions. Female leaders who try to act in ways typically associated with male leaders—assertive, authoritative, directive—are seen far more negatively than males. In the modern world, we’d like to think ourselves above such base stereotypes. But that doesn’t mean that discrimination goes away; it means that it shifts from the explicit to the implicit realm. “It’s the idea of second-generation feminism,” Bowles says. “We have these culturally ingrained ideas about what we consider attractive or appropriate, ideas of what’s O.K. for men or women. And when women violate it, people have an aversive response.”
Women are potentially being evaluated according to different criteria, even if the person doing the evaluation doesn’t realize it. Julie Phelan and her colleagues at Rutgers have found that, when women are already in the hiring or promotion process—that is, when their credentials have already been screened and they are in the interview phase—the focus shifts away from their competence and toward their social skills. That effect is absent for male candidates.