Blushes and Bluster

Last week I participated in the Eureka Live debate on Women in Science at the Wellcome Collection in London.  My fellow panellist Ottoline Leyser, spoke passionately in favour of being positive. (Ottoline, you may recall, is the author of that wonderful collection of life vignettes in the booklet Mothers in Science downloadable here; she has just  moved from York to my own university.)  She highlighted how negatively the media often presents scientists and science and how damaging that is for encouraging students to pursue science at school and university. It also too often translates into conveying the view that combining children and careers for women is just too damn difficult – something readers of this blog will know I get worked up about too, as discussed here and here.  Pessimism is something that fuels and amplifies lack of confidence, creating a destructive vicious circle. Confidence was a topic that was brought up by one of the audience in the Q+A session at the Eureka debate and I’d like to consider it further here.

It is often stated that girls and women lack confidence more than men but confidence comes in many guises and in academic science there are different ways a lack – or indeed an excess – of confidence can manifest itself.  I can think of examples of blushing, shy PhD students who feel sick before giving a seminar who then come across as strong and confident when it comes to the actual talk and give an incredibly polished performance.  I can think of students who appear to be totally sure of themselves in one-to-one situations, who then fall to pieces and stumble when giving a public presentation and stammer themselves to a standstill in the subsequent question session. As it happens the examples I have in mind are in fact women in the first group and men in the second, but that’s not necessary (although I suspect the blushing bit probably is biologically more likely to be women).  Indeed I also know an eminent male professor, now much in demand as a charismatic public speaker, who as a young man stammered so badly he could hardly spit out his own name at times.

Then there is the person who is internally entirely sure of themselves, but feels no need to put themselves forward in meetings, simply exuding a quiet assurance, and whose presentations are understated.  Finally there is the person who has (apparently) great self-confidence and can talk the hind legs off a donkey and yet, when pressed hard, you realise that their fundamental understanding is somewhat dodgy. The trouble is, you don’t always get the chance to press hard and may consequently be misled – and this is the character I am most concerned about because too often they are the ones who land the jobs. I have heard members of appointments committees fret after the event did they get it right, or were they bamboozled by the fast-talking bluster (not, I am glad to say, any I have actually sat on).  What these personality outlines show is that there are a variety of different ways actual and apparent self-confidence can manifest itself – what you see is far from always the underlying truth of what you’ve got in front of you. I think one mustn’t be too glib about this subject if trying to find ways to encourage young scientists to succeed, or assume a lack of self-confidence is the sole preserve of women.

I don’t have scientific papers to quote here but, the saying always goes that men are more inclined to take risks whereas women are risk averse. I have heard this in so many different guises that I assume it is more than anecdote, and it was raised again at the Eureka debate.  The times I have heard anxious comments made about the appointments’ committees I have to say it is the form of ‘were we fooled by that man who came across so well compared with that understated woman?’ But these characteristics can cut both ways: I was reading paperwork today which said of a male professor’s research that it

‘does not always get the attention and recognition it deserves.  This is in part due to his modesty relative to his peers in this highly competitive field’.

However, I will keep this discussion on confidence gender-neutral and allow readers to make their own attributions if they want. When discussing confidence-building what should we actually be aiming at in our training exercises? If you feel internally a great lack of self-confidence what is the best strategy for success?

The sine qua non, the absolute minimum, has to be the ability to communicate clearly and audibly. Sounds obvious, but admissions interviews in Cambridge are complicated when students turn up so frightened they can’t string a coherent sentence together. You cannot possibly judge a person under those circumstances, and yet you are forced to. By later career stages – interviews for a PhD, a post-doc or a lectureship – the candidates will have moved on a bit, but nevertheless nerves can get the better of most of us at times.  I always tell my students giving presentations to practice, out loud, perhaps with the cat for audience if they can’t face a fellow human in the room, what it is they want to say. The very act of articulating sentences shows up where they are confused, their powerproint presentation has a vital link or diagram missing or when they simply can’t pronounce a crucial word (personally I always try to avoid the word phenomenological which, not only do I have trouble spelling without a spell-checker, I always have trouble speaking out loud).  But interviews are harder to prepare for: some questions will be obvious, but others will come from left-field. So this is when other strategies come into play. Take your time, ask the panel to repeat the question, rephrase and repeat to check you have understood it correctly – all this gives time to suppress that momentary panic and get some logical thoughts together.

But style, how do you cope with that?  One thing that coaches work on is body language, and that is really about a set of tips that convey confidence whether or not it exists. I am told – though I haven’t mastered this one – that when giving a lecture there are correct and incorrect ways to use the hands and, just to be subtle, these are different for men and women. I am afraid when I heard all this, saw the demos of what is meant to look convincing, what looks more like Maggie Thatcher and what looks like a timorous wreck I just gave up. It was too complicated. But maybe I’m too old a dog to learn these new tricks (I only came across this last year) and if you’re exposed to this before becoming set in your ways maybe it will work. Much simpler are ideas of where to look – at the audience of course, not your feet nor the screen (in a seminar) or the clock. But my trick on this is to look at the audience in a very impersonal sense, usually somewhere above their heads such as the back wall so I don’t have to make eye contact with anyone. In an interview, though, eye contact is almost essential or you just look shifty.

I am sure professional coaches could give a much longer list of do’s and don’ts, that isn’t really my aim here. What I want to say is that self-confidence of the sort that can get you through tricky situations is something that can be simulated, whether or not accompanying internal self-confidence is acquired simultaneously or at all. If you feel a great hole at your centre, as many highly successful scientists most certainly do (remember the impostor syndrome? I suspect it is almost ubiquitous amongst academics), you can still put on a pretty convincing act if you search out tips and practise. More worryingly, what I don’t have an answer for is  how – for the senior scientists doing the ‘judging’ – we can develop appropriate antennae to spot the person who exudes everything positive; who clearly doesn’t have a hole at the centre and yet they really, really should have one because their actual skills are much weaker than fellow candidates who are merely nervous or insecure.  Nevertheless, the key thing if you do lack self-confidence is not to let it undermine your accomplishments, but learn to fake an inner strength when in public.

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6 Responses to Blushes and Bluster

  1. There’s a discussion of the Eureka Live event and issues arising going on at William Cullerne Bown’s Exquisite Life blog.

  2. Thanks for pointing this out Austin. The Exquisite Life blog and mine take slightly different angles – mine is not really an account of the discussion, so much as thoughts stimulated by it – but they’re definitely complementary (and I’ve posted some thoughts on their blog too).

  3. New blogpost about the Eureka Live Debate by Della at A detailed commentary of the topics and comments raised given there to flesh out what I’ve written here.

  4. Delilah says:

    Interesting post, Athene, and I thought the Eureka debate was fascinating. I agree with your thoughts about confidence – that there are many different types and so we cannot generalise, especially regarding gender. I would like to suggest it’s a certain kind of confidence, which is not innate at all but is based on the reactions of those in society. Regarding your point “the saying always goes that men are more inclined to take risks whereas women are risk averse. I have heard this in so many different guises that I assume it is more than anecdote…”, I wonder if it’s the fact that you ‘hear this is so many different guises’ that it’s a myth that becomes reality. The same may be true with the myth of women’s superiority in multi-tasking (which has an indirect effect of making people feel women are suited to the home). The negative effects of stereotyping has been shown scientifically to be real. When women take risks, they are often viewed with more scepticism or disapproval than men (again, scientifically shown: see this for example: – this in turn grinds away at women’s confidence (or inner strength). I would suggest that confidence is not about faking inner strength, but rather developing inner strength. I run a public speaking club to help people develop those skills, and, having overcome the phobia of public speaking myself, I’d say the solution is finally believing that you are doing alright. This can be helped a great deal by those around you. Hence the higher bar imposed by society on women hinders them.

    • I can’t comment on whether the myth makes the reality which is what you are suggesting. indeed I don’t even know if there is hard scientific evidence about risk taking, although I suspect I’ve seen something about experiements on multi-tasking (possibly fMRI ones) to back up that particular statement. However, I quite agree with you about stereotype threat, and wrote about this previously – with links to other work on the subject included in that post and comments. There is no doubt other people’s expectations can colour one’s response.

      I think your comments about training tie in with what Steve said in his comment on my next post, but I think there are two different facets here. One is that you can develop the confidence that you can speak publicly, and training and practice will certainly help here. By having that kind of confidence I think one can then project an illusion of a general sense of self-confidence. That is what I meant by faking it. Self-confidence is much, much more than just the ability to speak. Some people seem born with an acceptance of themselves in the round, the inner strength you mention, but I suspect relatively few people. For most of us we have confidence we can do some things – which might include public speaking, particularly after training – but know we are rubbish at something else (writing concisely, perhaps, or having a firm grasp of economics). The question is then whether knowing you are rubbish at these other things means you feel a failure or just accept that’s how you are. I would say only the person who does the latter is genuinely self-confiden; the others are the ones who I described as having a hole at their centre.

  5. What can I say in a few sentences? I love what you have written. Every word. It reminds me why I’ve chosen to be a coach and trainer in communication and help women especially develop confidence and overcome shyness, blushes and insecurity!
    You’ve said it all “we can develop appropriate antennae to spot the person who exudes everything positive; who clearly doesn’t have a hole at the centre and yet they really, really should have one because their actual skills are much weaker than fellow candidates who are merely nervous or insecure”
    Completely agree, beautifuly said and hilarious.
    My role is to make people’s real light, even if it’s a tiny amber first, shine and reach the others. For those who use electric full Watts, I have them work unplugged…in their naked truth.
    You would love Brené Brown’s talk on vulnerability and shame (TEDx Houston)

    Happy to have connected with you , thanks to twitter tonight (absolutely can’t find the thread of serendipity that led me there!)

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