Crack the Confidence Code — Podcast with Katty Kay

Katty KayWhy do so many women—even women who have achieved unprecedented success in the public and private sectors—lack the self-assurance that drives many of their male colleagues?

“Psychologists uniformly agree that a little bit of overconfidence is better than a little bit of under-confidence, which is what most women suffer from,” says BBC World News America anchor Katty Kay.

In this podcast, Kay explains the research behind confidence, plus why—and how—women should work on boosting the confidence they’ve got.

Key takeaways:

—Confidence is a belief that you have the ability to succeed at something. It’s not the same as self-esteem.

—Women consistently underestimate their abilities—whereas men consistently overestimate them.

—Research shows that “when it comes to success, confidence matters more than competence.”

—Confidence is 25-50% determined by your genes—but you can actually change your brain’s wiring at any point in life, simply by acting more confident.

—Confidence breeds confidence.  As you take actions, risks, and step outside your comfort zone, you build mastery—a major driver of confidence.

—Being a confident woman does not mean trying to imitate men, but it does mean showing up, raising your hand, and applying for those promotions in a way that is authentic for you.

—To start boosting your confidence right now, commit to countering every negative automatic thought you have with three positive ones.

Katty Kay is the anchor of “BBC World News America,” based in Washington, D.C. She is also a frequent contributor to “Meet the Press” and “Morning Joe,” and a regular guest host for “The Diane Rehm Show” on NPR. In addition to her work on women’s issues, Kay has covered the Clinton administration sex scandal, three Presidential elections and the wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. She was at the Pentagon just 20 minutes after a hijacked plane flew into the building on 9/11 – one of her most vivid journalistic memories is of interviewing soldiers still visibly shaking from the attack. Kay grew up all over the Middle East, where her father was posted as a British diplomat. She studied modern languages at Oxford and is a fluent French and Italian speaker with some “rusty Japanese.” Kay juggles her journalism with raising four children with her husband, a consultant. Learn more here.

View Transcript




JUNE 24, 2014


Whitney: Hello, everyone. This is Whitney with the Conference for Women. Thanks so much for joining us for Crack the Confidence Code. We have Katty Kay. A little bit about her: she’s the anchor of BBC World News America, she’s based in Washington, D.C., and she’s a frequent contributor to Meet the Press and Morning Joe, and a regular guest host for the Diane Rehm Show on NPR.

In addition to her work on women’s issues, Kay has covered the Clinton administration sex scandal, three Presidential elections, and the wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Thank you so much for joining us!

Katty: Thank you. I’m looking forward to this.

Whitney: So, if you’re following along on Twitter, we will be tweeting out some highlights. You can follow us @TexasWomen, @MassWomen or @PennWomen, and Katty, do you have some social media that you also would like people to follow along with?

Katty: Yes, I’m on LinkedIn and The Confidence Code is on Facebook as well. We have a fabulous website – – and I’m gonna tell you a little bit more about that later, because we’re building a lot of research on confidence with The Confidence Quiz that’s on the website that I would love you all to take. And I’m on Twitter as well – @KattyKayBBC.

Whitney: Fantastic. So, first, let’s just start with how you got interested in confidence among women, and then, just go from there.

Katty: Well, a few years ago, Claire Shipman and I wrote another book called Womenomics, which was really about the value of women in the global workforce. There are now half a dozen global studies that show that companies that employ more women are actually making more money than their competitors, and we thought this was incredibly exciting news for women. And I think a lot of us don’t actually know that. But as we were doing the interviews with women for that book, very senior, successful women, we kept coming across phrases like “I’m just lucky to have got to where I’ve got to,” or “I was in the right place at the right time,” or “There’s a great job opportunity out there, but I don’t quite have the skill set for it. I’m not ready for that promotion.” And it struck us, you know, we never heard phrases like that from the men that we interviewed. And was this just anecdotal or was there really a gap in confidence between men and women, particularly in the professional space?

So, we started digging into the research around this issue, and we came up with extraordinary numbers suggesting that the gap is, indeed, real. Hewlett-Packard has done an internal survey, showing that women will apply for a promotion in the company when they have 100 percent of the skills necessary for the job. Men are quite happy to go for that same promotion when they have only 60 percent of the skills necessary for the job because, guess what? They figure they’re gonna learn the rest when they get there anyway. And the numbers on this are replicated, you know, in multiple forms: Columbia University has done work that shows that men routinely overestimate their abilities by some 30 percent; women tend to underestimate their abilities.

We found the data fascinating, because it suggests that, women, while we are incredibly talented – we are better educated than men these days, we have more degrees, we have more postgraduate degrees, we even have more Ph.Ds. than men – somehow we are not recognizing our abilities in the same way that men do. Men’s perception of their ability is over their actual ability, but women’s perception of their ability is below their actual ability. And what we wanted to do with this book, The Confidence Code, is bring those two things in line, so that women recognize their talents for what they are and stop holding themselves back.

And the reason I think that confidence is so critical is really based on research that we found out of Berkeley University – a professor there called Cameron Anderson, who is in the Business school at Berkeley – and he’s done a lot of work on the relative importance of confidence and competence. And his research suggests that, when it comes to success, confidence matters more than competence does. And I think, you know, when we found this research, Claire was like, “Are you sure, Katty, because, I did the original interview, are you sure you got this right? Because this is just too depressing for words.”

Because, I think for women, that’s such a crazy idea. You know, for years we’ve kept our heads down, worked hard, played by the rules, and taught that our natural talents would be rewarded. But we’ve looked around us – in our offices and in our lives and we’ve seen men get promoted over us and get pay raises higher than ours – and it’s because they have this quality called confidence. They’re not more competent than we are; we know that. But they have something that we are missing out on. And I think, if women can start to see that the definition of talent needs to be expanded to include confidence, not just competence, not just our A grades and our perfectly edited reports, and our immaculately presented client presentations…it needs to include confidence. And I think that was why we felt that this was such a critical issue for women. And we spent quite a lot of time, actually, trying to define what confidence really is.

What is this quality that we all think we know when we see it – that kind of swagger and bravado and the person that talks loudest and longest and dominates all the meetings? Is that confidence? And we spent a long time with psychologists asking about this, and we spent a lot of time with neurologists, neuroscientists who are trying to examine confidence in things like monkeys and rats and, who knew, right, that there were confident rats and unconfident rats, but apparently there are. And we were really trying to get to the bottom of this. And every time we did an interview, we would ask somebody, “So, what is this quality called confidence?” And inevitably, we’d be met by a pause and a sigh. “Well, it’s complicated.”

Because we know what optimism is, we know what happiness is, we know what self-esteem is, but confidence is a little bit harder to define. Self-esteem is this general feeling that you’re valuable in the world, that the world is a friendly place. It has an almost moral quality, if you like, to it, and I think, when we started writing this book, we assumed that confidence and self-esteem were pretty much the same thing. But they aren’t, it turns out.

Confidence, as one psychologist Richard Petty, who’s at Ohio State University, said to us, “confidence is the stuff that turns thought into action.” And we thought that was such a great, clear definition of confidence. Confidence is a belief that you have an ability to succeed at something. It’s not a general “I’m a worthwhile, good, valuable, evolved human being type feeling. It’s “I want to try this thing, but it’s challenging, and I believe I have a chance at succeeding at it, and I’m going to put the effort in, and I’m going to give it a go.” And confidence is very action-oriented. It’s about taking action. And I think for women, in a way, that’s a great definition, isn’t it, of confidence, because I think women are about results, and being efficient, and being effective, and getting things done, and taking their ego out of the equation.

And I think, this idea that confidence is about action, not about how we feel about ourselves necessarily, is a really valuable lesson for women. Confidence comes from trying hard things, going outside your comfort zone, not giving up when you meet hurdles, testing yourself to take on new challenges. And the great thing about this definition is that, as you do that, you build more confidence. Confidence comes from taking action as well. It’s called “mastery” in psychologists’ languages. And it’s not necessarily mastery of incredibly hard things. It could be that you want to learn to swim. You may never become an Olympic swimmer, but if you keep going at it, and you keep trying, you’ll learn to swim across the lake. You will have mastered something. And that process of learning to master something is very confidence-building because it makes you realize you can succeed.

I had this strange thing when I turned 40. I decided I wanted to learn a difficult sport, and I took up kite surfing. And I assumed that, you know, if I could learn to kite surf at the age of 40, I’d be incredibly cool, and I’d be jumping above the waves, and I’d probably discover youth, and be a cool surfer chick. Well, what I hadn’t factored into this equation was how incredibly hard it is to learn to kite surf. And after a couple of summers of trying, I was almost ready to give up, because I’d beaten my legs up, I’d burst into tears far too many times, I was cursing up and down the beach, and it was hell. I hated it. But I had that kind of moment to think, “Well, I could give up or I could keep going.” And I could tough it out, and I could build my resilience. And the next summer I cracked it. And I’m really glad I did, because it made me realize that I can do something physically hard. Something that I thought was outside my reach, something that was really challenging for me, that I didn’t believe that I was able to do, I mastered it.

And it made me, then, think, “Well, I could try other things too.” Whether it’s, you know, asking for a promotion at work, or asking for a pay raise at work. I could do that because I had mastered one thing that was difficult.

Part of the reasons, I think, that women are less confident, this confidence gap that we talk about, than men, is something to do with the fear of risk taking, a little bit of a fear of failure. We came across one amazing study by a professor called Zack Estes who’s currently in Milan and Italy, teaching there. He had put a group of men and women down in front of a computer test. It was like, it was called a facial awareness test, and it looks a little bit like…the diagrams look a bit like Rubik’s cubes, and the participants in this test had to solve a bunch of questions around these Rubik’s cubes. He put the men and the women in front of the test, got them to do these questions, and he found that the women’s scores came out significantly less than the men. He went back over the test, and he found that what was actually happening was that the women were skipping more questions than the men were skipping.

So, he gets back the group, and he says, “Okay guys, you now have to answer all the questions. You can’t skip any more questions. When they had to answer the questions, the women did just as well as the men. And to us, that was a real lesson in confidence and taking action. For some reason, those women didn’t want to risk answering a question if they weren’t sure they were going to get it right. They wanted to be perfect. They didn’t want to risk failure, and they preferred to skip the questions rather than risking failing at the question. And for us, that’s such a critical lesson for women, because when we don’t take action, when we don’t try hard things, when we don’t take risks, even at the expense of risking failure, we are limiting ourselves. We are not scoring as well as we could do. We are not aiming as well as we could do, as high as we could do.

And, I think, you know, that lesson in Zack Estes’ test, was just such an “aha” moment for us in this building of confidence. This idea of confidence and taking action and being prepared to take risks, being prepared to risk being wrong, because if you don’t, you’re never going to fulfill your potential.

So, where does confidence come from? What is it, you know? Are some people born more confident than others? We were kind of surprised to learn that confidence is actually partly genetic, something like 25 to 50 percent of our confidence comes from our genes, from our DNA. So, that sense that you have, there are people out there that just seem to be more confident than you, they may have just been born that way. It is true that some people are born more confident.

We actually got our genes tested, for the writing of the book. There’s no one confidence gene; there are a group of genes that predispose us, either on the one hand to confidence, or on the other hand, towards more anxiety. They’re the same genes, and they are genes that control our hormone levels of things like dopamine and serotonin and oxytocin, all those I’m sure you’ll all have heard of. Those genes are the ones that neurologists are now looking at in relation to where confidence comes from.

So we got our genes tested for the book, and we sent a bit in a little tube, and we sent it off via FedEx, and a couple of weeks later, you get your results. And I have to say, we spent those couple of weeks waiting for our test results – sweating, rather – and worrying that we wouldn’t have the right gene (as if we could possibly influence those), but, you know, very concerned that somehow, we were not going to get the perfect gene set. And guess what? Our genes came back, and neither Claire nor I have a predisposition, genetically, towards confidence. We are not genetically confident people. Which made us realize that, actually, confidence must be a choice in large part. It’s what psychologists call the missional, the things you choose to do, because actually, Claire and I, after many years of working in our professions and taking risks, and trying new things, have become confident women.

I would describe myself as a confident person. There are times when I feel nervous, and there are times when I’m worried I’m not going to succeed, but I am generally a fairly confident person professionally. And yet, my genes are not confident. So, it’s what I’ve done during the course of my life, and I think that’s what’s so exciting for women is this idea that confidence is really much more of a choice. That you can choose to build your confidence by taking risks, by being prepared to risk failure, by going outside your comfort zone. And if you do those things, the amazing thing that neurologists are just finding is something called “brain plasticity.” You would actually change the shape of your brain, the way your brain works. You will build a brain that is more prone to confidence. And this can happen very late in life. We can still change our brain late in life.

So, those are some of the things that help you build confidence and why we think that confidence is so important to women. One thing that we wrestled with – and then I’ll take some of your questions – during the course of writing this book, was whether…the image we have of confidence, the people who are confident, I think for women is often quite off-putting. It really is that kind of guy that, you know, speaks loudest and longest at the meeting, who jumps in first and throws out 50 different ideas towards the bosses every day.

And we wrestled, kind of, with this idea of whether you have to be a jerk to be confident. I mean, is that what confidence is? Bravado and swagger? And it was Christine Lagarde, who’s the first female head of the International Monetary Fund who we introduced for the book, who really helped us come to terms with this kind of problem, really, of jerkiness and confidence being seen as the same thing. She said to us one thing that was very interesting. She said she still has to dig deep inside herself sometimes to find her confidence when she’s going into stressful Finance Ministers’ meetings. We found that very, kind of, liberating, the idea that somebody in her position could admit to moments of lack of confidence, I think, was very liberating for us. But what she said was that for women, we know that when we try to act like men, we get penalized for it professionally, not just by other men, but by women as well. That we somehow get seen as being bitchy, or too aggressive, or too assertive, negative associations for women who seem to act like men.

And I think for most women it doesn’t feel very comfortable. It’s very hard to be confident when you take on somebody else’s armor. And Christine Lagarde said that the thing is that women have to be authentic. We have to be who we are. We can still listen, and be consensual, and bring different points of view on board, and, you know, bide our time in meetings. We don’t have to act like the guys. When we act like the guys, it doesn’t work for us, but when we act like women, it is incredibly powerful. But that is not an excuse for not acting. It’s not an excuse for sitting at the back of the room and mumbling and apologizing and not having your views heard. You still will have to sit at the table, make sure your views are heard, make sure your opinions are heard, apply for those promotions, ask for those pay raises, but you can do it in a way that is authentic to you. Don’t try to do it in a way that assumes all of that [XXXX], because the chances are, it won’t actually work for you very well anyway.

So, that’s what The Confidence Code

Whitney: So, is there…

Katty: Yeah, go ahead.

Whitney: Is there something such as too much confidence?

Katty: You know, that’s interesting. Is there an idea of over-confidence? And Columbia, when they came up with this survey, on men overestimating their abilities by 30 percent, found that, an expression that they called “honest overconfidence.” It’s not that the men are bluffing, they’re not faking their confidence. They genuinely believe that their abilities are 30 percent more than they actually are. Women genuinely believe their abilities are less than they actually are. And this notion of “honest overconfidence” we find rather interesting. But we assume that getting your confidence exactly in line with your ability is probably the best bet, but psychologists uniformly agree that a little bit of overconfidence is better than a little bit of under-confidence, which is what most women suffer from.

Now, too much overconfidence gets us into 2008, gets us into too much risk taking, gets us into financial crashes that we don’t need to go through. But a little bit of overconfidence is probably where we need to nudge women toward.

Whitney: So, I know we have limited time, and a lot of our listeners are listening in and saying “Okay, I’m going to get off this call. What are some specific things that I can put into action to build confidence?” What do you recommend?

Katty: One thing we talk about is thinking less. Women are prone to what’s called “ruminating,” much more than men do. We live inside our heads. I’m sure all of you in this team will recognize this, and I do it all the time. Somebody says the slightest thing at work, and I’m still thinking about it two days later. “Bob, my boss, hasn’t emailed me back. He must be mad at me. Maybe the whole BBC is mad at me. Maybe I’m gonna be fired! Maybe I have to start thinking about finding a new job. It must have been that bad live show I did last year.” That’s the kind of spinning we do inside our heads. I did it recently. I was anchoring three hours of Morning Joe, and I asked one dumb question of the Governor of Iowa. That was at 6:20 in the morning. 6:20 in the evening, I was still thinking about that dumb question. 6:20 the next evening, I was still thinking about that dumb question. Three weeks later, I was still focused on that one dumb question which, by the way, no one else would notice, rather than thinking, “Wow, I did three really good hours of hosting somebody else’s show. I asked great questions, I had a good relationship with the other guests, I read all of the news properly…” I wasn’t thinking about the good stuff I had done, I was thinking about that one stupid question that I’d asked.

And I think, for women, it’s so important to learn to draw a line under that, one where you can do that, we made Confidence Code. The book is very practical, by the way. It’s full of very specific advice on how you do this stuff. You have to draw a mental line under that. One thing that works really well is three thoughts – good thoughts – to one bad thought. A neurologist told us about this: she was in the habit of thinking of the bad things she had done. You know, “I didn’t hand in a grant report on time…” She says what you have to do is think of three things, good things. Good. Bad is unfortunately more powerful than good, so you think of, “But I had a good conversation with a graduate student. I learned the new software system. I talked to my boss about that new proposal we’re writing.” And you remind yourself, every time that negative thought, that grant proposal you didn’t get in on time pops into your head, you go through, you go through the list. It’s literally forcing your brain to kick off a list of three good things that you did.

That’s a very effective way of countering what are known as negative automatic thoughts. And women are much more prone to those horrible gnats than men are.

Whitney: So, thank you, everybody, for joining us – the Massachusetts, the Texas, the Pennsylvania Conference for Women. And if you’re interested in learning more about the book, they can go to And you mentioned earlier there’s a small quiz that people can take. Can you tell us just briefly about that?

Katty: Yes, when we launched the book back in the middle of April, we also did with the work, with the help of two very top psychologists/academics, we came up with The Confidence Assessment. Because there really isn’t very much research on gender differences and confidence, how much income affects confidence, how much ethnicity might affect confidence, all of those kind of things, professions – how they affect confidence. So, we divide this assessment – it’s really more, it’s not a kind of pop Cosmo quiz, it’s a real serious assessment. It only takes five to seven minutes. If you take it on, you’ll get a ranking of how you come out compared to other people who’ve taken the quiz.

We thought, maybe, you know, maybe four or five hundred people would take our confidence quiz; we are now at almost 70,000. So, we’re really excited to be building this fantastic database of research and helping these academics get a better understanding of what confidence means for women.

Whitney: Fantastic. Thank you so much for joining us.

Katty: Thank you.