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Confidence matters – Why women hold back and what we can learn from men

Today I had a lot of fun being fitted for a one-piece leather riding suit. In a few weeks I get to ride track for the first time as part of a ladies-only, beginners track group. I was fitted by Lisa Campbell from Race and Road Brisbane, as they are the supplier of Ricondi hire gear for this track day. Lisa gets to speak to lots of women about their riding. We had an interesting conversation about how many ladies are keen to try a track day, but often will stop themselves taking the leap. As women, does our lack of confidence sometimes hold us back?

The confidence code

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman are USA journalists who co-authored a book called “The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance-What Women Should Know” They spent a long time looking deeply at the subject of confidence. A lot of what they discovered applies to men as much as women.  They did however find that a large confidence gap exists between the genders. According to what they found, there is no question self-doubt holds women back.

An example of the confidence gap exists strongly in the employment world. It means women initiate conversations about pay increases four times less than men. For those women who do initiate, they ask for 30% less money than men. When asked what they think they deserve to earn after graduating tertiary education, women say an amount that is on average, 20% less than the amount the men in their class say they think they deserve.

Sticking with the work theme, there was a study that came out of the workplace of computer brand Hewlett-Packard (HP). HP found women applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements. Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about going for it. Overqualified and overprepared, many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are practically perfect.

Gender and motorcycles

As I read this, I realised that I have observed these same gender differences within the motorcycle world. Despite investing in their training, despite dedicating themselves to practicing their skills over and over, female riders tend to hold themselves back. According to a bunch of research, it’s related to women doubting themselves. I haven’t noticed as many men doing the same thing.

I’m not saying this is a black and white observation. I know there are men who doubt themselves. But research does back me up. It shows that men rarely doubt themselves to the same level as women, and they certainly don’t let their doubts hold them back as often as women do. 

In fact, research shows men tend to lean toward overconfidence which gets them far in both their riding and in life. Meanwhile, sneaking quietly around car parks and dead-end roads, the underconfident lady is waiting to become the perfect rider before she joins that group, gets out on that track, or even takes herself out onto the suburban road. 

Perfectionism can kill confidence

Study after study confirms that perfectionism is largely a female issue, and it crosses over into many parts of our lives, not just riding. Women often don’t answer a question unless they are 100% certain of the answer. Women tend to check, recheck, edit and re-edit something to within an inch of its life before submitting it! We don’t sign up for that track day unless we know we are faster and more skilled than is required. We won’t join that group ride because we convince ourselves we’re not good enough yet.

What does our brain say?

Despite the brains of men and women being very similar, it appears there are some differences which can shed some light on why women lack the same level of confidence as men. Male and female brains show difference in structure and chemistry. Scientists believe these differences may be the reason for certain patterns of thinking and behaviour that could affect confidence.

There are parts of the brain called the amygdalae which is sometimes described as the brain’s primitive fear centres. They help us process emotional memory and respond to stressful situations. It seems women activate their amygdalae more easily than men, when stimulated by a negative emotion. This suggests that women can form strong emotional memories of negative events more often than men. That’s why women tend to dwell on things that have gone wrong in the past. 

While we’re still on the brain stuff, let me tell you about the cingulate cortex (oh boy, that one will be hard to say in the audio article!). This part of the brain helps us regulate emotions and pain, and is involved in predicting and avoiding negative consequences. Sounding familiar? It should. Guess why? It’s larger in women than it is in men. It makes women amazing at scanning a situation for threats. On the one hand, what an awesome quality to have. My untrained mind would take a guess that maybe this contributes to less women than men have motorcycle accidents. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure it’s a mixed blessing, as it’s probably the same reason women hold themselves back too much.

How do we use our traits to progress us instead of holding us back? 

Psychology professor Richard Petty says:

Confidence is the stuff that turns thoughts into action. If the action involves something scary, then courage might also be needed. Or if it’s difficult, a strong will to persist might also be needed. Anger, intelligence, creativity can play a role. But confidence is essential because it applies in more situations than these other traits do. It is the factor that turns thoughts into judgments about what we are capable of, and that then transforms those judgments into action.

Richard Petty

Let me see if I understand this correctly: Inaction results in low confidence, and low confidence is because of inaction.

Sounds like a vicious circle. When women don’t act, when we hesitate because we aren’t sure, we hold ourselves back. But when we do act, even if it’s because we’re forced to, we perform just as well as men do. 

This is what research psychologist Zachary Estes discovered anyway. He found that what impacted the women in his study was not their actual ability to do well. They could do just as well as the men. What held them back was the choice they made not to try.

So what’s the moral of this story?

Book the track day! 


Take action. 

If it helps, do it with your tribe. At least the other girls are out there feeling as nervous, scared and as imperfect as you.

I think there can be solidarity in that.

Loren is our Girl Moto founder and editor. Several years into her leadership role with East Coast Female Rides (ECFR), Loren felt a desire to bring a female-focussed publication to life. One that would serve to unite Girl Moto's around the world. With a background in business finance, marketing and copywriting, Loren actually creates Girl Moto content as an excuse to call riding motorcycles "work". When not being Girl Moto, you will find Loren enjoying downtime with her family, riding with her ECFR tribe or feeding her obsession for travel and good food, with a healthy side-serve of beach vibes, whenever possible.


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