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The confidence gap: why men are more likely to contribute in the classroom

When a professor asks a question, what goes through your mind before deciding whether to raise your hand? Research shows that, if you identify as a woman, the list is likely to be longer. “Joke’s on you, writer”, you may be thinking. “I never even considered raising my hand.”

Well, you are not alone. Though recent research has shown that gender performance gaps have closed or will close soon – that is, women, in most academic and professional fields, perform as well as men –, a different gap persists: the “confidence gap”. This distortion refers to the perception that men and women have about themselves and about each other. Namely, for factors that are largely socialised, men are more confident. They are more comfortable in their capacities and abilities, they apply for jobs they are only 60% qualified for, and they talk more.

This phenomenon can also be seen in the university classroom. While a university admission could be seen to validate female students’ intelligence and potential, the confidence gap stubbornly remains.

At Bocconi University, in Milan, the Master of Science Politics and Policy Analysis graduate program is one of the most gender-balanced on campus, at least in theory. In reality, it can still feel like a boys’ club, much like politics in the real world. Women in the course express a meaningful desire to contribute, but often cannot find it in themselves to speak up.

We decided to ask some of the women in the course why they so rarely offer answers to professors’ questions or comments. One reason we heard often was that some men are too fast in raising their hands, not leaving enough time for them to formulate their ideas. Upon further inquiry, it does not seem to be the case that men think faster than women, but that women are more cautious and more conscious about what they say and whether they should say anything at all.

“I am reticent about giving my opinion, especially when I disagree with what a colleague has just said”, one female colleague said. “I am scared of being seen as difficult or combative.” Research shows that this fear is not unfounded – in fact, women generally suffer from something called the “assertiveness penalty”. Women who exhibit leadership-related traits (often stereotypically male) are less-liked than men with the same traits. If they display anger, they are seen as less competent and receive lower wages (the opposite is true for men).

Other women express an insecurity – they are unsure if their idea makes sense and are scared of making a fool of themselves. “Most of the time, I actually have the right answer. I feel terrible afterwards, thinking ‘Damn, why did I not raise my hand?’”, one colleague reflects. Even then, the cycle continues: women are still seen as intellectually inferior in society as a whole, so they feel pressured to debunk this myth by only speaking when certainthey feel that, to be seen as competent, they are not allowed to make mistakes.

An interesting phenomenon is that even some of the men in the course try to encourage women to share their thoughts. “I want to hear different perspectives”, a male colleague tells us. “We are about eighty in the class, but it feels like we only hear the same ideas over and over.”

We also spoke to students from the Master of Public Policy graduate program at The University of Oxford, which has students from over 60 countries. Despite the diversity of the cohort, students from non-English speaking backgrounds raised how they often did not contribute because they felt self-conscious and were unsure of certain words. As a result, native English speakers would often dominate classroom conversation.

When it comes to gender, a female student also observed that the confidence gap is not just verbal contributions but physical actions too. “In our smaller seminars, men, particularly from the West, would be more comfortable taking the main seat at the head of the table.” Another woman recalled raising their hand in class but being overlooked by the teacher as they were in a less immediately visible seat. “When it happened a few times, I decided it’s not worth [contributing further].”

Despite these challenges, there are ways to close the confidence gap in classrooms. This year, students in Oxford’s Master of Public Policy program created ‘Gender@BSG’ (BSG referring to the Blavatnik School of Government). The program is student-led and platforms women in the class to deliver a presentation on their area of expertise. It is a safe and feminist space that explicitly invites women’s contributions and values their knowledge.

Teachers can also intervene to address the confidence gap. Postgraduate programs are often diverse in terms of demographic and work experience. Depending on the topic, teachers could invite students from particular countries or industries to share their experience in class ahead of time. As one female colleague suggests, this gives students time to prepare and also provides validation that their views are important and should be heard. Finally, creating spaces for women to talk about these experiences helps us to overcome the confidence gap together. Across our interviews, we noticed the positive effect of women sharing their experiences of self-doubt with other women who have experienced the same. Together, we realised that our experiences were not individual, but collective. By creating a support system, we saw how our self-critical thoughts are not actually based in truth, but a reflection of how women have been silenced, dismissed and underestimated for generations.

So, the next time you hesitate before raising your hand, remember the confidence gap. Your contribution might just encourage another woman to raise her hand too.