A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a pubic presentation by a graduate of our local university, Ms. Heidi Shyu, who recently retired as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology. As is explained in one of the online articles about Heidi’s career, she “has played a major role in the service’s weapon systems procurement branch for five years during a tumultuous time.” This is a woman who earned a degree in mathematics from our university, the University of New Brunswick, where her father taught history. After acquiring a Master’s in math at Toronto, she went to see what was happening of interest in California, and the rest, as they say, is history. As I listened to Ms. Shyu explain how she forged a career for herself in the echelons of the military-industrial complex of the United States, a long way from a small-town academic environment, I thought about what seemed to be crucial to her story. Yes, she is extremely smart and she is clearly extremely self-motivated. But she also exudes self-confidence – in spades. And her story made it clear that this was the attribute that made the difference.
When I asked her how she acquired her self-confidence, and what advice she could give other women about becoming more self-confident, she allowed that she was giving talks about her journey in the hopes that her story can make young women realize the opportunities that await. It’s not just about being competent, it’s also about being confident.
And whatever works to instill self-confidence in more young women is worth trying. Because for whatever reason – and there are many thoughts on the subject that can be found with some simple googling – this is an area where women by and large do not shine. In the world of engineering and computer science, we have been trying to convince more young women to enter those areas of study for decades now. Most surveys done to determine why young women shy away from those disciplines don’t say it is because there are too many men and they’d feel overwhelmed by them (thank goodness!), it’s because they’re afraid they won’t succeed because they got an 80% in high school math instead of 95%. Meanwhile, all kinds of young men apply for these disciplines with 65% in math and just assume that it won’t be a problem. This is a small example of the difference in thinking, or conditioning.
Typically, women have to be convinced that they are good enough. This does not come naturally to them. According to the literature, both serious and popular, many generations of women being treated as subservient to men has probably helped this. Women have been nurtured to try to put everyone else’s needs before their own for a very long time. But this message has not always come from men, and especially not recently. Yet we continue to do it to ourselves. We are far more likely to worry about what others will think, and whether we are really good enough to succeed. When there is an excuse not to try something that is outside our comfort zone, too many of us grab onto that excuse rather than take up a new challenge and court failure. The men in our families for the most part do not care if the housework gets done or if the meals are perfect, but many of us continue to use that as an excuse if nothing better comes to mind.
In a 2014 magazine article in The Atlantic called “The confidence gap”, the author cites example after example of women who rose to positions of authority within their organizations, but who still weren’t convinced they were deserving. During a recent election campaign I was involved in, I was told that on average it took 17 attempts to convince a credible potential female candidate to run for office, whereas potential male candidates usually just assumed they’d be great candidates, whether that was true or not. Somewhere there must be a happy medium!
The Atlantic article points out that women have shown both themselves and the world that they are competent. What is lacking is the self-confidence. And, according to this article, that is what is holding so many of us back. One telling point was that women typically do not apply for a promotion unless they have 100% of the qualifications, whereas men seem to assume that they’re ready and they will be able to convince someone of their fit, experience or not. It’s fascinating to consider how we can approach things that differently.
Some of us are born with this all-important confidence. My guess is that Heidi Shyu was born with it. I know my Mom had to have been born with it; she was a confident woman who wore it well, and she sure didn’t get it from her parents! And, although I certainly spend plenty of time in the self-doubt arena, I have never been afraid of stepping out of my comfort zone. That I can undoubtedly attribute to my mother, and also to my husband, who practically pushes me supportively into every “opportunity” that appears.
Two main points can be taken from The Atlantic article that women – and fathers of daughters and men who can mentor women – should work on changing:
- men consistently overestimate their abilities, while women consistently underestimate theirs; and,
- too many women choose not to try.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could change that up? We may not all end up with the impressive self-confidence of Ms. Shyu, but we sure want our daughters and granddaughters to believe they can do whatever they want, and then go out and reach for the stars