Why Girls Need ‘Work in Progress’ Role Models

The Cover of Living the Confidence Code; Katty Kay and Claire Shipman

“Confidence is what turns our thoughts into action.”

Throughout their careers as journalists, Claire Shipman and Katty Kay noticed, time and time again, that there seemed to be a confidence gap between men and women of equal ability. Hoping to understand why, Claire and Katty researched and wrote The Confidence Code, which explains the science behind building confidence. They were haunted by one finding in particular: between the ages of 8 and 14, girls experience a 30% drop in confidence. “In some cases, it can take our whole lifetime to build it back up again,” Shipman said.

Their findings prompted the duo to write The Confidence Code for Girls in an attempt to head off the confidence gap before it has time to take root. After receiving an overwhelming response to the book, they followed it up with, Living the Confidence Code, which provides real-life examples of girls doing extraordinary things.

KCM talked to Claire Shipman about the importance of failure and why their new book resonates with grown women and young girls alike.

KCM: What is “the confidence code” exactly?

Claire Shipman: The keys to creating confidence – what we call the code – really amounts to three things: do more, think less, and be authentic. 

The main thing we found is that confidence involves action. It’s that process when you take a risk, step out of your comfort zone, try something hard, and maybe fail, but then persevere — that’s the cycle that creates confidence. 

The reason “think less” is important is because women tend to ruminate and overthink a lot more than men do. Too much thinking ultimately will inhibit the doing.  

We found in the course of our research that it’s easiest to act and to take risks and to just do things that are hard when you feel like you’re doing it for yourself. It’s harder to tap into that wellspring of energy when it’s not you. 

What prompted you and Katty to write a book for girls?

If you look at girls in school, they’re often a gazillion times more competent than boys. They’re doing their homework, they’re doing well on the quizzes, they’re pleasing people, they’re multitasking. But it’s almost as if there’s one set of rules from ages zero through college, and then you’re in the world where A-pluses don’t matter, being cautious doesn’t matter, being perfectionistic doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s the opposite of all of that.

All this time, parents and teachers reward girls for doing things that we often have a natural inclination to do because we do have a higher EQ [emotional quotient], and we are more apt to please. But when we get rewarded for all of that, instead of for risk-taking and failing, it just reinforces this idea that we should be cautious and perfectionistic. 

We’re trying to create that appetite for risk-taking and failure all the way through and make that something that girls can start to value. And then as women, they won’t be realizing, like I did at age 50, “Wow, why don’t I like to take risks?” 

This book is all about why imperfect girls make perfect role models. What was it like to hear their stories in their own words?

We learn so well through stories, and so we thought, if we could find and tell some stories, it’s just going to be easier for girls to learn from girls closer to their age than from us. It was critical to us that the girls were going to be willing to talk about their failures and to talk openly about struggling because that’s really helpful for our audience. I felt like these girls are all so open in relating their struggles or challenges that it pulled us in as adults. We’re all often scared to try new things, and we all need strategies.

What do you mean by “strategies?”

What we tried to do was point out where in a girl’s story they were getting stuck, or where they had been able to find a solution or a strategy that worked for them. They all had very different takes on what they would do when they would hit an obstacle, and along the way, many learned that they could take on something even harder than they thought, or they learned that they’ve built some confidence. 

How do parents fit in here?

As a former TV producer, I feel like I can fix anything, and that’s not a great approach to being a parent: it’s the opposite of what we should be doing. This research made me realize that I was depriving my kids of the opportunity to learn from failing and to learn from struggle. It’s a relief that you can try to take a step back, knowing that you really are doing the right thing. They really do need to build their own confidence, because you doing it for them doesn’t build their confidence. 

If you can look back at a situation with your kid where they’ve failed at something, or they’ve really tried and it’s taken them a long time and help them pull it together, that’s really valuable.

You talk a lot about thought patterns like catastrophizing or overthinking in The Confidence Code for Girls. What advice do you have for parents who see their daughters struggling with these patterns?

When you don’t recognize what’s happening, it’s really hard to pull yourself out of a thought pattern. You don’t understand that your brain has been hijacked. For girls, if all they do is start to recognize that their brain is being hijacked and that they have ways to calm it down, that is 90% of the battle.

What was your biggest takeaway from writing this book?

The girls in the book are all amazing, and vastly different. They come from all over the world and they’ve done different things. Some of them are big, save-the-world kind of things, and some of them are very personal and private and might have to do with bullying or a learning disability. I think it’s important that parents know and everybody knows that this is not a bunch of girls who are going to just make other girls feel defeated. They’re amazing, but they’re all relatable through their struggles.

This interview has been edited and condensed.