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How to Close the Confidence Gap

Cultural differences
Company Culture
Diversity

27 June, 2020

Agata Grzybek, ex-Uber Engineering Manager, explains what is the confidence gap and shares her experience with addressing it.

Problem

The confidence gap is real and it simply means that some people are less/more confident than the others. More specifically, I’m trying to shed a light -- from my own perspective -- to the confidence gap existing between women and men which I as a woman in tech, often experience.
 

This confidence gap has its origin in the time when we are kids. Usually, boys play more competitive sports at their young age that teaches them to take risks, as well as to fail and move on. Girls are taught that they are the most valuable, and most in favor when they do things the right way -- neatly and quietly. As a result, many girls learn to avoid taking risks and making mistakes.
 

Though the confidence gap starts at an early age, it doesn't end up there. It is reinforced through academic years and continues in the professional context. Women still pay a heavier social and even professional penalty than men for acting in a way that’s viewed as aggressive (men would be perceived as assertive).
 

I’d like to share what I’ve done to address the confidence gap as an engineering manager, but these actions can be taken by everyone. Addressing the confidence gap in teams and across your organization is important to create a more diverse and inclusive work environment that is proven to deliver measurable, positive business outcomes.
 

Actions taken

  • Understand the problem. Learn about the problem by reading about it and talking with mentors who know more about this topic or have experienced this problem themselves. Even though I personally experienced the confidence gap, I still learned a lot from reading this article, for example, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/05/the-confidence-gap/359815/
  • Educate others backing up your opinion with scientific studies. I always try to share my learnings everywhere I can. When I was an EM at Uber I would have brief presentations about this topic at my team meetings, various EM meetings, and even made it a recurrent theme on our 400 people org’s all-hands meeting every 2 months. I was surprised by how much interest and support I got from everyone around me -- leadership, peers, and ICs.
  • Create a forum for people to share their feelings and thoughts. After my presentations, people would often approach me wanting to discuss the topic more. I would help to organize meetings where those interested could come and share more. The groups were usually small, included also allies, and were very empowering. Everyone could share a story and everyone else was actively listening. I was very impressed by vulnerability and that people were able to relate to the stories and build more empathy towards each other.
  • Be conscious while recruiting. It is important to be aware of the confidence gap during every stage of recruiting, from writing a job description, sourcing, interviewing, and closing a candidate. Pay attention to the fact that women usually do not apply for a job until they are perfectly qualified or even overqualified. Discern their real contribution to their past work achievements. Women often downplay and underestimate their achievements by using “we” instead of “I” even though they were the main driving force behind the project.
  • Coach perfectionism. Being a perfectionist can prevent a person from taking risks, accepting larger responsibilities, and even from getting much of anything done. I remember one conversation with a data scientist on my team when we tried to understand why she was sometimes slower in delivering results or needed to put extra hours. When we looked deep enough, we understood that it was because she had to have everything done perfectly and validated twice before sharing the results. After understanding this underlying belief we were able to brainstorm on how she could overcome this limitation and balance her perfectionism, so both her career and the team goals would unblock.
  • Create a safe environment to take risks and give everyone equal chances to do so. Ensure that everyone has a chance to speak at the table. Similarly, when a larger or more risky project is being assigned, watch out for people who hold back. It’s possible that people who do not ask for larger projects are more qualified than those who rush to appoint themselves.
  • Encourage collaborative workplace vs competitive one. On my team, we recognize not only people who take bold risks, but also those who go above and beyond to help others or work on the less risky projects. A good and quick way to give such recognition is to invite the team to share kudos, or “thank you” notes, to each other on team meetings. This way we balance the incentives and equalize the competitive with collaborative behavior.
     

Lessons learned

  • The confidence gap does not affect only women. It is a broader problem that also has an effect on people from other cultures who are more collaborative than competitive.
  • We can untap so much potential, restrained by doubts that people have about themselves. If we, as leaders, can boost self-confidence and heal the unhealthy perfectionism of our people, our teams will be not only more diverse and inclusive but also better performing. There will be more innovation, risk-taking, and also less burnout and attrition.
  • The confidence gap is one of many topics that fall into the broader Diversity & Inclusion theme. The actions listed above can be templated and also used to address other D&I topics, like racial injustice, generation gap, microaggressions, or even cultural differences in decision making. The template would be: Learn yourself, Educate others, Create a forum for people to share, Be conscious while recruiting, Coach the underlying bias or limiting beliefs, Identify what you can improve in your work environment to address the problem.

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