Is The Confidence Gap Holding You Back?

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If you weren’t one of the 50,000 people who read the article “The Confidence Gap” in The Atlantic this past month, here’s what it said: Compared to men, women generally underestimate their abilities, and this holds them back. The examples in the article rang disturbingly true, and made me wonder: Is there a “confidence gap” in climbing and outdoor sports, too?

The Atlantic article mostly focused on women in the workplace, but if we’re hesitant to ask for a raise or take a calculated risk at the office, even though we’re working hard and performing well, are we also slaving away at the gym but lacking the confidence to finally make the bold moves to send our projects—or on a bigger level, risk making big goals and following our dreams?

One of the studies in the article showed that women would generally apply for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications, whereas men would happily apply when they thought they could meet only 60 percent. While the men were willing to fake it till they could make it and learn through the process, the women only felt confident when they were perfect. Could that attitude be keeping us from meeting our full potential as climbers? Or bikers or skiers?

While sport climbing a couple weeks ago, I yelled down to my partner that I just wanted to be lowered—I felt like I was taking too long to figure out the sequence and gather my courage to make the move. Partly, I was chicken to commit. But some part of me was also embarrassed to fail and take up my partner’s time as I tried again and again. But that’s exactly the point—which he reminded me when I got down to the ground. How will we ever progress if we always wait until we’re 100 percent sure we’ll succeed before we make the move?

When we’re hung up on a tricky route or a steep, technical trail, do we look at it for what it is—a challenge to get through that will make us stronger? Or do we turn inward and talk down to ourselves about it? A Cornell psychologist said he’d observed, time and again, that at a certain point in his course, when the going got tough, his male students tended to recognize the challenge for what it was and respond to their lower grades by saying, “Wow, this is a tough course.” But his female students more often reacted with what he calls internal attribution, saying, “I knew I wasn’t good enough.” It’s a debilitating outlook.

Nature can be a ruthless examiner, inquiring into our deepest insecurities. When we’re in the midst of that inquisition, can we move past our insecurities, stay cool and look at the challenges objectively?

Climber Whitney Boland recently wrote some great advice on on how to stay confident when we’re finding ourselves challenged or getting scared: “Say positive things and try avoiding negatives (like don’t or can’t or I’ll never do it) … And never, ever say “scared” to yourself.”

All the studies had one thing in common: women’s general reluctance to take risks—something second nature to men. Men’s natural testosterone can push them into behavior that’s risky in both good and bad ways. There are multitude reasons—both societal and biological—why we women are wired with a more conservative bent. And in the outdoors, where risks and rewards can sometimes be a matter of safety, our naturally conservative female instincts might just be our lifesavers. But if we let them completely take over, we’ll never feel the transcendent joy of overcoming a fear and the correspondent thrill of victory.

“The natural result of low confidence is inaction,” wrote the authors of The Atlantic article. “When women don’t act, when we hesitate because we aren’t sure, we hold ourselves back.” Whether we’re applying for a promotion, pitching an idea to a client or trying to stick that one 5.11 move, an injection of bold confidence might just be the boost we didn’t know we needed. And the good news, according to The Atlantic, is that increasing evidence shows our brains are malleable—and if we channel our hard work, we can actually make our brains more confidence-prone.

So is pretending to be confident the first step in moving forward? Whitney Boland says so. “When you’re confident, it feels like you’re climbing stronger, precise, focused … the good thing is that confidence is something you train like a muscle.”

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