Certainty is the Catalyst for Confidence – How to Close the Confidence Gap

Woman walking


Allison Engel
Allison Engel

I am a woman — a take-no-prisoners, world domination-driven female who believes that nothing can stand in the way of my professional and personal success. I recognize that my overt confidence puts me in the minority within my own gender or, at the very least, the vocal minority.  

In their book, Confidence Code, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman brought confidence to the forefront of gender studies. The duo explored the “gap” between men and women when it came to their self-assurance. What they found was a multitude of factors, covering almost every conceivable “nature versus nurture” scenario and ultimately created an undeniable truth: We women have  a propensity to underestimate and undervalue our abilities compared to our male counterparts.

Now the thought that I am gapped in anything is unsettling, as I’m sure it is for most people — regardless of gender. But to think I am a victim of a confidence gap simply because I am a woman makes me wonder if I will ever hit the echelon of success to which I strive.

But the real question is how do we reframe the conversation? Do we acknowledge that the gap exists, but own the problem in a proactive way? Or do we resign it as a character flaw? How do we, as women, as the dominant gender population, look science and global research in the face and say, “I got this, confidence gap or not, no glass ceiling, wage gap, or 271 years until gender parity will hold me back?”

To get to the root of the solution, it’s critical to understand how confidence is defined.

What is confidence?

Confidence is the feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities, or otherwise stated, feeling certain about the truth of something. Studies will tell you that confidence is fluid; it can increase and decrease depending on the impact of both internal and external factors. It ebbs and flows based on situations, experience and complexity.  

If we look at this in the context of business, how do we take something that has so many variables and start to exhibit dominance over it, especially knowing that the lack of it may rear its ugly head in important meetings, job interviews or negotiating salaries and deals? As leaders, how do we coach about something so intangible that even the person we are trying to help may not acknowledge its existence?

The key to cracking the code lies in the second part of the definition, the concept of certainty. If we can increase our certainty by focusing on controllable factors, one could argue that we could then increase our confidence. Mercer, the consultancy behind the "When Women Thrive" platform, speaks to this concept as “certainty of success.”

Increasing certainty of success

If you think about certainty as a speedometer, men only have to be going 40 miles per hour before they’ll apply for a job, ask for a promotion, pitch an idea or release a product. Women, consequently, need to be twice as sure, going about 80-90 miles per hour before they’ll take the exact same actions.  How can we increase certainty and create the catalyst for women to take action?

1. Assess

It starts with simple self-reflection. On a scale of 1-100, how certain am I that I will be successful? If you’re less than 80 percent certain, then we know we have work to do. Anything over 80 percent, go for broke! Most likely you’re twice as certain as your male counterparts.

2. Diagnose

What would I need to increase my level of certainty? This could be anything — education, practice, belief from a peer or leader, validation from a client or investor. There’s no one size fits all. This is an intensely personal determination that you have to make.

3. Implement

Take what you identified in the diagnose stage and put a plan of action together on how to accomplish each attribute you identified that would increase the certainty of success. 

While gender parity might be a moving target, closing the confidence gap is something that is attainable. In order to do this, women in particular need to understand the confidence landscape and be armed with the tools to overcome any headwinds. But more than anything, women need to acknowledge the only certainty in our futures is that who we are and what we achieve is limited only by the reaches of our own aspirations and drive. If we can achieve this, then that will certainly be a strong step in the right direction.


Allison Engel is director of women’s market strategy at Northwestern Mutual. She has more than 15 years of experience empowering women worldwide in the fields of media, technology, entrepreneurship and finance.