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Working women’s tightrope

Maybe women are not sufficiently full of themselves. But let’s not coach them to be full of something else, either.

Read the rash of corporate self-help books and articles lately unleashed upon the world’s white-collar women, and you’ll learn that there is a yawning “confidence gap” between the sexes.

Among the alarming symptoms and evidence: We women, even the most successful of us, are riddled with self-doubt. We second-guess our next moves constantly and “ruminate” over failures. We withhold our opinions in big meetings, while less-informed men freely bluster and bloviate. Even in anonymous political opinion polls, women are more likely than men to say “I don’t know” when pressed for a view on something about which we actually know quite a bit.

When we do express opinions, we too often apologize for or prematurely disclaim them or intonate them as questions rather than statements. We don’t throw our bonnets into the ring for promotions and raises for which we’re surely qualified.

The self-assurance deficit reinforces the glass ceiling because confidence seems to help people perform better on certain tasks – and, perhaps more important, swagger leads others to perceive us as more competent. One study that asked business school students about imaginary historical people and events found that those who feigned familiarity with the fictional figures also achieved the highest social status among their peers.

These are familiar, broad-brush gender stereotypes, of course. But many of them ring true to me – both as a young woman with brilliant and accomplished but perpetually self-doubting girlfriends and as an opinion journalist. (Op-ed pages are often criticized for their dearth of female voices, but the gender imbalance is because men are much more likely to submit unsolicited guest columns and to accept direct invitations to write.)

So sure, whether because of biology or socialization, women are underselling themselves and could stand to be a little more self-promotional.

Still, it’s not clear to me why this has been framed exclusively as a women’s problem or why the optimal solution is for women to ape the men with whom they compete.

Those same studies that show women to be underconfident often show men to be overconfident. “The Confidence Code” cites one Columbia Business School study documenting that men typically rate their performance 30 percent better than it actually is. Likewise, a survey released last week by YouGov found that, when asked to compare their own intelligence to that of the “average American,” about a quarter of men declared themselves “much more intelligent,” vs. just 15 percent of women. Lake Wobegon, it seems, is brimming with testosterone.

In short, men seem much more willing to be blowhards – during dinner parties, at the office, on anonymous phone surveys and in the nation’s fine op-ed pages. And as long as both employers and peers continue to conflate bluster with aptitude and to reward bombast with respect and job promotions, the only way women can successfully compete is to be not just more confident but overconfident in everything they do, too.

Like thrift, bluffing may be a good strategy for individuals who want to get ahead but destructive to society at large. An arms race in B.S.ing seems unlikely to lead to better-run companies, at least, and it certainly isn’t creating more informed political discourse. I realize it’s easier to teach women to increase their swagger than to tell grown men to temper theirs. So maybe the solution involves trying to change Americans’ perceptions of bluster rather than their skillfulness at wielding it. Rather than advocating that an entire class of people start faking it ’til they make it, maybe we should be coaching voters, students, bosses and viewers at home how to be a bit more skeptical of the loudest guy (or gal) in the room.

Catherine Rampell writes a twice-weekly column for the Washington Post.

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