In May, I attended the Art of Leadership for Women conference in Toronto. Its packed agenda included high-profile speakers such as Martha Stewart—who remains a force to be reckoned with, despite her brush with the law a few years ago. But for me, the most intriguing take-aways came from Katty Kay’s session on the confidence gap.

With her fellow journalist and research partner, Claire Shipman, Kay has invested considerable time and energy into exploring the roots of confidence: where it comes from, what drives it, its presence in men and women, and its impact on the workplace.

According to Kay and Shipman’s research—as outlined in their book, The Confidence Code—men are generally more confident than women. In fact, said Kay, men tend to overestimate their skills by 30%, but women tend to significantly underestimate their own abilities.

And confidence may actually be more important than competence in driving success, particularly from a career standpoint. For example, research has demonstrated that men will apply for a promotion if they feel they have 60% of the qualifications, while women feel they need to have 100%. So who do you think is going to get promoted more often? “Confidence is about bringing our perception up to our actual abilities,” Kay explained.

But, for women, confidence isn’t about acting more like men. In fact, it’s not about acting at all. “When women act like men, they get penalized for it,” Kay said, adding that women need to find ways to be leaders in their own right, in an authentic way.

Whether or not this confidence gap truly exists is a contentious issue. Kay and Shipman have been getting some flak—and, interestingly, it’s mostly from women. Some argue that Kay and Shipman’s views put the onus on women to change, when it’s our society—and, by extension, our workplaces— that need to change. I get it.

As I remarked in a previous editorial (“Women’s Work,” April 2014), there’s evidence that a gender gap in the workplace still exists. But change at the societal level is a massive undertaking, and we’ve got to start somewhere. Why not start with what we can control today, right now: the thoughts, perceptions and misconceptions that drive our behaviour?

It’s not an either/or scenario. Employers need to support a fair and equitable work environment—which may mean acknowledging that, while female employees may not put themselves out there as often as men do, it doesn’t mean they don’t want or deserve that new job or promotion. And, as women in the workplace, we need to do our part, too. Speak out. Speak up. And be heard.

Get a PDF of this article.