The Confidence Code for Girls: An Interview with Claire Shipman

January 22, 2019
After featuring Claire Shipman in the inaugural issue of Women & Wealth Magazine, we had the pleasure of sitting down with her once again – this time to talk about raising confident girls. When we spoke three years ago, Shipman had just published “The Confidence Code.” Now her focus has turned to girls, and she provided us the highlights of her latest release, “The Confidence Code for Girls.”

Back in 2015, upon the launch of the Center for Women & Wealth, I admit that I was a bit shocked when Claire Shipman agreed to appear on the cover of the first issue of this magazine. After all, the magazine was just an idea at the time. Three years later, we have published 13 issues, but the conversation about the confidence of women and girls continues. As a result of the excellent work of Shipman and her co-author Katty Kay, we know that building confidence starts early and is critical throughout adolescence for girls. Confident girls become women who lead.

I am thankful that we had the confidence to ask Shipman to speak with us back in 2015 and that she was again willing to share insights from her recent book, “The Confidence Code for Girls.”

We spoke first in 2015 after “The Confidence Code” was published. How has the conversation about women and confidence changed in the past three years?

The conversation about confidence is everywhere now. Overall, it has changed for the better. What is different now is that there’s more appreciation for the fact that not only do companies and organizations need and value women, but they understand that female leaders might lead differently. There are more discussions about how to change the climate at a firm. I’m not saying it’s happened, because that’s the last frontier.

There’s been a gap between understanding that having female leaders is important and drives business and profits and then understanding that the modes of behavior the company needs to value may not be the traditional male ones. They need to be broader, and that’s tricky because our definition of what a leader looks like is almost still a 1950s caricature.

What inspired you to write this book, “The Confidence Code for Girls”? What did you find happens to girls’ confidence between ages 8 and 14?

We found that up until 8 years old, confidence is about the same among boys and girls. Then, between the ages of 8 and 12, it plummets by about 30% in girls. Boys experience ups and downs but nothing like this drop. When you marry that with other data about women and confidence and men and confidence, the female confidence never fully recovers. It never gets back up to the level where it’s equal to that of men.

When Katty Kay and I were writing “The Confidence Code,” we were trying to trace when confidence in women starts to decline. Data showed that it begins in puberty. We wanted to understand why, but that wasn’t a huge part of our book at that point. Then, when we were thinking about what to do next, we got excited about the idea of getting in there before the drop and trying to inoculate girls.

Tell us more about how boys and girls think about confidence differently. Do they have a different definition of confidence?

Confidence is really about action. It’s about doing, failing and learning from that so you’re ready to take the next risk. It’s not about whether I’m a nice person or if I look good.

In partnership with Ypulse, we conducted research on confidence, which showed us that, instinctively, boys get more confidence because they’re more natural risk-takers. In boys, confidence is about what they achieve, and with girls, it’s about who they are.  

How do girls get that view that confidence is how they feel about themselves? 

That is one thing we don’t know. Girls have more active internal minds, especially starting at puberty. The other interesting discovery they found in the research was that rumination starts at puberty. That was kind of fortifying for me because I thought, “Who’s equipped at puberty to deal with overthinking?” In fact, maybe that is part of puberty – that negative voice constantly saying, “Why did I do that? Why did I send that message?” Girls start to do that around puberty, and they probably don’t even recognize what’s happening. Girls have that inner voice of judgment that in boys is more outwardly directed – they’re less reflective. In a lot of ways, I really envy that.

Girls and women operate cautiously, think things through and are sensitive to other people’s feelings – all of which are assets. The issue is when those things get in the way of our own ability to take risks or achieve or believe in ourselves. That’s when they’re a problem.

Your book talks about the top things girls can do to create more confidence and provides a checklist of action items.

We wanted to keep the messages simple, but we do start out by talking about risk and getting girls to understand that risk is scary, but it’s important to take risks. We talk to them about creating a risk list, thinking about all the things they consider scary, writing them down and thinking about how they might try one of them.

We try to break down the book into the most important things girls should focus on for building confidence: learning to take risks, learning to deal with failure, learning what’s going on inside your head and, ultimately, being willing to reject perfection.

We talk about the difference between starting small and taking a crazy risk. You want to take bite-size risks at the beginning. We’ve also weaved into the discussion scenarios for them to work through.

We give tips about starting with small risks and what you can tell yourself when you’re standing on the precipice to be willing to take action. One of the most useful tips we found was to be your own coach – you need to learn how to have a positive coach voice in your head where you’re telling yourself, “You can do this. You’ve done stuff like this before.”

What do you do when something is scary, whether it’s trying out for the basketball team or the school play or talking to a stranger? How do you build up the courage and then just do it?

One suggestion is to consider the worst thing that’s going to happen. We really try to normalize failure. Failure happens to everybody, and it’s not a catastrophe. It’s a way to learn, and you move through it. That’s essential.

You say parents have to role model failure for their kids and talk about times that they failed.

We found in the data that mothers are worse than fathers at recognizing a lack of confidence in their girls, which surprised us until we talked to the researchers. We realized that’s because women are still experiencing that lack of confidence, and we often don’t view that behavior as odd. We view it as normal to have doubts because we recognize it, whereas the dads are wondering, “Why is my daughter doing this? It doesn’t make any sense.”

For women, it is important to say, “I got this horrible email today from my manager that was really critical. I don’t know what to do,” and a great thing to do is use your daughter as a consultant.

In the first book, “The Confidence Code,” you talked about confidence role models. In this book, you talk about failure role models. Do you have a favorite failure role model who you think about at times like this?

For me, failure role models are all the women who run for office and are willing to risk losing an election. It is the ultimate confidence test, because it’s public speaking and, ultimately, having people vote on you. What’s more excruciating than that?

Christine Lagarde is another one. She talked about some of her failures when she was a young student. She also talked about running for office and the politics of doing so in France, and that was unbelievably hard.

The more you read about women in Silicon Valley who are willing to say, “I tried this, it didn’t work, and I’m doing the next thing,” the more you realize it is pretty unusual for women to feel comfortable enough to talk about failure. There are a lot of women in business who will say, “Let’s be real, women don’t get to fail as much as men. In fact, failures are counted more against us.” We all have to change that, and part of it has to be our own attitude and willingness to fail.

As a parent, it’s difficult to watch your kids fail. How can parents resist the urge to jump in and prevent failure?

It’s difficult. There’s so much stress and tension about school that you wonder if there is room to fail. However, if your child is going through life, or even high school, without a major failure, that’s not a healthy situation. You do not want to send your children out into the world never having failed. You don’t want it to happen at college or when they’re away from home.

As parents, the most powerful thing we can do is connect the dots and remind our children of a time that they failed and how they moved past it. Children like to see their own life put into a story that has meaning, so that’s the arc. I always tell parents, “You have to be patient and have a long attention span,” which nobody has anymore because life moves so quickly. If you can remember those stories and two or three months later come back to them, it’s valuable.

As parents, the most powerful thing we can do is connect the dots and remind out children of a time that they failed and how they moved past it.  

In the book, you offer social media dos and don’ts. Why is social media such an issue for girls and confidence?

Basically, social media amplifies the stuff going on in their heads. Psychologists have said to us, “Think of it this way. If you had a horrible day at school, you used to be able to go home and have 12 hours away from that and an enforced break.” Now, there’s no break. My daughter will bring home fights or conflicts, and it continues with no end.

Combine that with girls tending to overthink, and it blows things out of proportion. If girls are already going to think getting a B- on a test is the worst thing in the world, that’s going to be even worse if they come home and text friends about it and compare notes. What we try to do in the book is make girls aware that we are in this connected world and recognize how it can affect their mindset.

I love the part of the book where you teach girls to be culture critics and to notice bias in the world. Why is that important and related to confidence?

This was something we felt passionately about, and we didn’t really know whether it had psychological grounding. We spoke to child psychologists, and they explained you can do one of two things. You can either pretend the world isn’t the way it is and decide you’re going to shelter kids for as long as you can, or you can adopt the mindset that information is power and start from the premise that it’s better to know and understand the context so you are not surprised.

It’s important to know you can get involved and do something about it. For girls, it’s helpful to look at the longer arc of history. The fight isn’t done. Look at what Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton did, and then look at where we are now. The women and girls of today are continuing that. Isn’t that exciting?

If every 9-year-old girl were to read your book, what does the world look like in 20 years?

What I would hope, most of all, is that girls become risk-takers in all ways. It doesn’t mean diving off a cliff or putting their hand up in class. Sometimes, it’s about speaking up for themselves or when they see something wrong or being able to stop apologizing for things.

Girls live with that “should.” I want them to be able to learn much earlier who they are and be willing to think about what they like and what they want to do – and not focus on getting perfect grades or doing what everybody else thinks they should be doing. I want them to know who they are and what they like and that it’s OK to stick up for what they like.

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