Self-confidence is an integral part of the equation of personal and professional success–and it comes easier for some than for others. Refer to the FORBES Top 100 Power Women. The list runs the gamut from heads of state to a race car driver to chief executives of some of the nation's largest companies.
What's their secret? Is it a motley combination of supernatural drive, Machiavellian wit, dumb luck, brute force and an innate sense of office politics? Since there's not a lot of research on this subject, I went to the experts–a sociologist, psychologist and New Yorker (Yes, The New Yorker) cartoonist–for their thoughts.
Christy Glass, Ph.D., is a sociologist at Utah State University who recently published a study finding that overweight women are significantly less likely to achieve career success than their thinner peers–no matter the educational or socioeconomic status of their families. While prospective employer biases may explain part of this effect, much of it is due to the fact that overweight women were significantly less likely to complete college than other women, despite equal talent and ambition. (The same was not true for overweight men.)
So how does personal confidence play into professional achievement? Glass suggests that confidence has to do with one's inner perception of his or her ability to fulfill a particular job or role in society. To be sure, Glass also says that much, if not most, self-confidence is influenced by the world around us. This includes our crazy families, supportive friends and employers (likely falling somewhere between crazy and supportive)–not to mention People magazine and Victoria's Secret.
"Self-confidence doesn't exist in a vacuum," says psychologist and founder of Compass Point Consulting Suzanne Roff, Ph.D. She believes confidence is largely built through our dealings with the world.
Having the internal sense that one's actions impact the outside world is a large part of confidence – and in this way, it's a two-way street. "When a goal is identified and accomplished well, confidence can increase," says Roff. And because our personal situations, social networks and relationships with ourselves are ever-changing, confidence is not static -– which is a very good thing for those who are trying to build more.
Are there gender differences in confidence? Absolutely, says Liza Donnelly, the well-known New Yorker cartoonist who has taught Women's Studies at Vassar College. She suggests that the distinction goes back to how men and women learn to behave in society in their early years.
"Women are not taught to exhibit self-confidence, and in fact are taught the opposite," says Donnelly. "Women often wait to be discovered, wait to be called upon. Asking questions, providing ideas and offering to be the person for the job are all things that we, as women, often wait for. But this only holds us back."
Men, on the other hand, generally don't hold their breath to be chosen. They tend towards the "my opinion is needed here" attitude, continues Donnelly. It's an attitude that everyone should possess, and luckily, it's one that is learnable.