The Gender Gap in Confidence

In our most recent Willow Poll, we noticed something interesting that we’d never seen before—a clear divergence in confidence in institutions between women and men. Women have significantly less confidence in our civic and societal establishments than men. And not just for some of them, but for every single institution measured.

Gender Gap in Confidence 


To put this in perspective, a similar survey conducted in 2006 found little to no gender gap in confidence in these important institutions.

The current findings are perhaps shocking, but not surprising. It makes sense that women have had their confidence in established systems shaken, when judged against events in the culture at large. The election of Donald Trump in the wake of the Access Hollywood tape. The #MeToo movement that produced a flurry of activity, but seems to be followed by little systemic change. The confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, following a wrenching public discussion about how survivors of sexual assault are treated. Legislative actions at the state level meant to challenge the precedent of Roe v. Wade. To many women, these all signal that American institutions—especially our governing ones—are failing them.


Which women?

Of course, women are not a monolith, so it’s interesting to see where there are differences (or not) in confidence depending on political affiliation, education, or income.

Women who self-identify as Republican have significantly higher confidence than Democrats in governmental institutions such as the Presidency (+46 points), the Military (+27), the Supreme Court (+21), and Congress (+13).

Conversely, self-identified female Democrats have a significantly higher level of confidence in the media than their Republican counterparts (+15).

Women's confidence by political affiliation


But for every other institution, there are no differences by political affiliation.

There are also very few differences by education. Those without a college degree are more likely to have confidence in the Presidency than those with a degree (31% v. 20%), but both are still well below the confidence in the Presidency expressed by men overall (46%).

And income? The low levels of confidence in institutions span across all income groups. Relative wealth does not necessarily change the impressions of institutions among women.

No matter how you slice and dice the underlying demographics, women express less confidence in these institutions.


What does it mean?

We often hear talk of “consumers” preferring A or B, or “voters” preferring policy X or Y, but one of the most important things we keep in mind when working with our clients is to identify when totals and averages may mask important underlying distinctions.

When your audience includes women, it may help to be mindful that they may have deeply-rooted suspicion towards particular types of messaging or organizations.

Some real-world examples include:

  • A trial lawyer arguing a case to a jury might wonder: How does my strategy need to change, knowing that women are likely to have an inherently lower level of trust in both corporate America and the legal profession?
  • An established national not-for-profit seeing these findings might question whether this confidence gap extends to skepticism about all or most institutions, including their own. If so, what are the implications for fundraising and brand positioning?
  • And many businesses might have similar questions, including: Is there a gender gap in my market and, if so, how can we address it?


What do we do with this information?

One of our company goals is to “help clients see around the corners.” It’s not enough to provide a snapshot of what the data says in the moment. We also want to understand what’s lurking on the horizon, so we can help clients chart the best course for their organizations and avoid potential pitfalls.

We’re already thinking about other questions we can ask in future research that will probe the “confidence gap” phenomenon and deepen our understanding of the forces at work.

For example: Are there any institutions in which women do retain their confidence and trust? If so, what separates those institutions from others? And, what would have to change to restore the confidence among women to the same level as men?

Answers to these questions will provide avenues to more questions and additional answers. Good research is both iterative and advancing.


A final thought.

As a woman-owned business, we also can’t help but look at this data through the lens of another earlier post about the state of all women-owned businesses. Research shows that while women-owned businesses are 40% of the total, they account for only 8% of employment and 4% of all business revenue.

These structural and systemic factors seem to be weighing heavily on the attitudes of women.

We ignore these trends at our collective peril.

Unless otherwise noted,[i] data in this report come from our recent “Willow Poll,” which explored public perceptions of justice, confidence in institutions, and other social and political issues. The study, conducted in November 2018, is based on online interviews with a nationally representative sample of over 1,000 Americans age 16 and over. Demographic quotas were established based on U.S. Census Bureau data.

Interviewing was conducted online by Lucid, an innovative global survey sample provider.

The study was generously sponsored by Robert Clifford of Clifford Law Offices, one of the nation’s leading trial law firms.



[i] Historical data cited in this report come from a previous study commissioned by Clifford Law Offices: “Public Perceptions of Justice” (2006).

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