In The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, ABC news reporter Claire Shipman and BBC anchor Katty Kay write that women suffer from a lack of confidence to such an extent that it undermines their success in the workplace. Similarly, a lack of confidence among women writing dissertations can cause them to get stuck often and even derail the dissertation process.
To build confidence, women not only need to learn helpful strategies, but they also need to take note of where they allow a lack of self-confidence to sabotage themselves.
Some dissertation coaching clients allow their lack of confidence to potentially damage their critical relationship with their advisor. A lack of confidence can allow a dissertation writer to let months go by without reaching out to her advisor.
Years ago, during a check-up with my internist, she asked about my dissertation. Before I could answer, she related how fearful she had been when she was writing a thesis during her master’s program in science that at one point, she said that she waited until her advisor had left his office and then, to avoid talking with him, slipped her writing beneath the door and then waited weeks before she had the courage to ask if he had comments for her.
Lack of confidence undermines success
In an interview with Charlie Rose, Claire Shipman and Katty Kay discuss the research on which they based their book. From the data obtained from neuroscientists, they learned that “confidence is somewhere between 25 to 50 percent genetic.” However, perfectionism, which the authors say is largely a female issue, most likely comes from nurture. Perfectionism can extend throughout a woman’s life, undercutting her confidence and success.
A good girl
Shipman and Kay quote renowned psychologist Carol Dweck who points out that the early years of school is where girls learn this behavior. Dweck says that “school is where many girls are first rewarded for being good.” Since her research shows that little girls have a longer attention span than little boys, as well as having greater verbal and fine motor skills, she says, “Girls seem to be more easily socialized . . . [and] get a lot of praise for being perfect.”
Because women for most of their lives work so hard to be perfect, whether it is in writing a paper or in planning a vacation, they waste time and increase their lack of confidence. “We spend too much time ruminating, stewing, thinking over our actions,” Shipman says.
“When I am planning an activity or when I am learning a new idea or getting started writing, I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get it right before I ever get started,” says one of my clients. “I worry and read more and put off jumping into writing. It is hard to admit that I am a perfectionist, but, yes, I’m spending too much time worrying about getting it right.”
The authors argue that many women do not know how to fail and do not know how to use failure as part of the process of getting better at something. Women remember failure longer than men, but not as an opportunity for learning. They often return to “stew” over the episode which, they think, shows their inadequacies and gives evidence of how easily they could fail again.
Test your confidence to build your confidence
To increase your confidence, it is important to put yourself in challenging situations and stick with the hard work and frustration of learning how to do the work.
And only you can put yourself into situations that test your confidence. Katty Kay says, “I have gotten to where I want to be, but only by forcing myself to do things that tested my confidence – going on shows I found intimidating, applying for jobs that seemed a bit out of reach, and standing up to bosses to insist on doing things my way.”
Continue to struggle
A dissertation client who has had issues with intellectual self-confidence for most of her academic life now appreciates the strength that comes from struggling and from tolerating academic frustration.
She thinks that had she been taught differently in her early years of school, she might have adopted a different mindset toward learning and have had more self-confidence. She says that in Japanese schools, the main point isn’t that a student gets the right answer to a math problem, but rather that the student continues to struggle and learns to tolerate the frustration that goes with the struggle.
Psychologist Jim Stigler writes of his firsthand observations of Japanese educational methods. Professor Stigler compares the methods he saw in Japan with those often used in American schools. He says, “For the most part in American culture, intellectual struggle in schoolchildren is seen as an indicator of weakness, while in Eastern cultures it is not only tolerated but is often used to measure emotional strength.”
Psychologists tell us the consequences of an American education which downgrades the merit of intellectual struggle become clearer during the high school experience when girls increasingly doubt their ability to think through thorny problems or texts.
My dissertation coaching client is gradually learning how to tolerate the frustration that goes with intellectual struggle. She said that when she had to do statistics and math in the past, she was afraid to show when she was stuck or had questions, but the dissertation has changed that. Now as she writes her dissertation, she says that she uses various strategies that will help her stick with the task, even when it feels frustrating. She has found it helps to recognize what she has done right and to talk herself through those specific, successful steps. She says that she then feels more competent and that she recognizes that she knows enough to continue the work.
Had she been taught as a child that tolerating frustration was the way to academic success, she might have avoided the tongue-lashing she says she received from a department head in graduate school when she made a self-deprecating remark about her abilities. He quickly let her know that such a remark was not acceptable. Not only did he want no excuses, but he also wanted her to show that she could tolerate frustration during the learning process.
Recently another client reminded me of something I had told her a few weeks ago. She said it had helped her when I said that “writing a dissertation is not supposed to be easy.” Of course, that statement is not original with me, but I’m glad that my passing it along helped my client. Over the years I have also reminded myself that writing is not supposed to be easy.
Any thoughts? How are you testing your confidence?
All good wishes,
Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC
Your Dissertation Coach and Academic Career Coach
nancy @ nancywhichard.com