Please join us to discuss everything literary (especially kid literary): good books, the writing life, the people and businesses who create books, controversies in book world, what's good to snack on while reading and writing, and anything else bookish. We welcome your thoughts.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Caldecott, CEOs and Confidence

by Cynthia Light Brown

Something that happened to me last week reminded me again of Carol’s post about the dearth of women who are Caldecott winners: Why Don't Women Illustrators Win Caldecott Awards? ; be sure to check out all of the great comments.

I went to a panel discussion put on by the Pittsburgh Tech Council called Venture Out 2012: How to Get Your Business Funded. It was about getting angel investors and venture capitalists interested in your business. Lots and lots of suits and ties; very few skirts. In fact it was much more heavily weighted towards men than most business venues. And I think the reasons are related to why there are many more men than women who win the Caldecott.

Carol gave some very interesting possible reasons in her blog post for this imbalance. But I want to explore one theme that I think permeates many of the other possible reasons: differences in self-confidence among men and women. I’m interested in this not so much as coming to a conclusion about why there are so many more men who win the Caldecott, as to where it might lead in thinking about success in the arts (and I mean success in a very broad sense).

About 7 years ago a good friend and colleague of mine, John, decided he was going to make the break from the consulting company we both worked for and start his own consulting company. He didn’t feel he was getting enough autonomy and pay with his employer. At that time, I was working 10 hours/wk at night writing reports so that I could be home with our kids. John asked me if I (and one other person) wanted to come along in starting a new venture, and I said sure. None of us had any money to invest, and we all had to work without pay for some time.

Soon after we had actual cash coming in the door, John proposed hiring in someone who could bring in a technology client. Did John have experience in this area? Nope. Did that faze him? Nope. Later, he pushed one of our software engineers to develop a management system that was quite different than what was out in the market. John didn’t have the knowledge to do the coding, but he kept pushing the (at first reluctant) engineer to do it. And if that weren’t enough, he then saw another application for it that breaks all kind of conventional “rules” and is in an entirely different business sector. Based on this new idea, he got angel investors, we’ve hired more software engineers and marketers, and things are hopping.

This past summer, a colleague (Nora) and I were at a lecture by David Brooks, and he talked about how in lots of studies of (I think I have this right, but I may be mis-remembering) IQ, aptitudes, attitudes, etc. men and women “score” similarly in nearly every area – including math and science and verbal abilities. The only big difference is that men have significantly more self-confidence than women. In general, women have less self-confidence than their abilities warrant, and men have more. Nora and I turned to each other, simultaneously said, “John,” and laughed.

John has formidable abilities. But he has even greater self-confidence. You could look at this as a flaw, but I think instead that having outsized self-confidence is a pre-requisite for being a good CEO, or for that matter, doing all kinds of things...including writing and illustrating.

Most women are reluctant to ask for a raise. It never occurs to most of us to branch out on our own and start a company, or if we do, to hire people to do the work instead of just doing it all ourselves. And going after investors, based on an idea? That never even enters our brains. Too much risk. Too much self-doubt.

But it should enter our brains. Our brains should be exploding with it.

I don’t think men should have less self-confidence (well, okay, a few of them should…), but I think women should have more. One of the commenters on Carol’s post, cathyjune, posted a link to an interesting article: The Trouble With Bright Girls. The main thrust is that for women, ability doesn’t always lead to self-confidence because “bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.” So girls (and women) are less likely to push through difficult challenges because they don’t have the self-confidence that they can learn what they need to.

The fact is, if we have ability, we can work and get even better. If we receive criticism, even harsh criticism, we can take it in, digest and absorb what is useful to us, and what isn’t useful can be…not absorbed. If we encounter difficulties, whether it’s rejections or a sagging middle, or a deadline that seems impossible, we can figure it out.

I’m not talking about the kind of false-confidence and self-delusion that might lead us to submit to a publisher or self-publish something that is – ahem - less than stellar. I’m talking about the kind of self-confidence and even over-confidence that leads us to believe that we can push through, that with hard work and perseverance we can master the craft, that we can get the revisions done in time, that we can get the plot problems figured out, that we’ll come up with the just-right illustration even if it takes dozens of sketches, and finally, that we can send our baby out into the world even if it isn’t perfect (because it NEVER will be, and yes, I’m talking to YOU).

And that’s good news for all of us, male or female.


  1. What struck me about your post, Cynthia, is the suggestion that men not only have *more* self-confidence--but that some of that self-confidence is unwarranted. I find that often to be true. My evidence is purely anecdotal, though!

    (Consider just physical self-confidence, shown in women's preoccupation with body image.)

    A corollary observation (also anecdotal) is that, in mixed-gender social and working groups, males often can't conceal their surprise when a female surpasses them at some achievement, or beats them in finding a solution. (I can't give examples, or I'll lose a lot of friends.)

  2. Good post, Cynthia. Piggybacking on Susan's comment, I agree that self-confidence is sometimes unwarranted, and has potential for disaster. But is seems to be one of the standout traits of those who achieve. It correlates (as John has proven) to being risk tolerant v.s. risk averse.