The gender self-confidence gap

The only woman in the room / Photo illustration: Efrat Levi, Globes

Even in their mid-forties, women still have significantly lower self-confidence than men, and view themselves as less effective.

Tzila is a successful senior vice president and the only woman on the leadership team of a global high-tech company. During a feedback conversation with the CEO, she was surprised to learn that in an organizational leadership assessment she received a higher evaluation among the executive leadership team, including the CEO on some dimensions. Tzila was surprised because, despite her many achievements over the years, she didn’t expect her evaluation to be that high or to outperform her colleagues.

Tzila is not alone. Research that analyzed thousands of leadership assessment skills among men and women found that, on average, women received higher evaluations than men in almost all aspects of leadership. One implication is that women managers are perceived as more effective than men managers across all management levels and functions. The same research found that, even in their mid-forties, women still have significantly lower self-confidence than men, and that, despite their high evaluations, they view themselves as less effective than men do. This self-confidence gap closes only in their fifties, when women rate themselves higher than men.

The concept "self-confidence gap" was coined following a research stream that found that women underestimated their skills and performance because of a lack of self-confidence. Women tend not to speak out about their skills and achievements, and they under-predict their performance in tests and assignments, and even often anticipate failure. Studies that explored gender differences in self-evaluation found that although women received the same average score as men in a science test, still they undervalued their performance relative to men, and also saw themselves as less good than men at drawing scientific conclusions. Furthermore, women were more likely to refuse to participate in a science challenge. Another research project found that women were likely to apply for a job if they saw themselves as fitting 100% of the job description, while men were likely to apply if they saw themselves as fitting 60% of the job description.

The implications of this phenomenon are broad, and can partially explain the low representation of women in top and middle management positions, in science, tech, politics, and other areas. The lower self-confidence among women explains their tendency not to talk about their achievements and let their surroundings know they are ready for the next challenge. More often than not, women follow the notion that "my achievements speak for themselves; if you do a good job, people will take notice."

When women do not feel comfortable taking credit for their work and achievements, they hurt their visibility in the workplace and hence the likelihood of being promoted. Furthermore, lower self-confidence that precludes women from applying for a job or participating in a science challenge, or makes them underestimate future success in a test, undermines actual performance and success.

How can the gender self-confidence gap be minimized?

  • It all starts with awareness. It is important to be aware of the situations in which a woman employee or manager steps back to give room for others’ successes rather than taking even partial credit for her work. It is important to encourage women to celebrate their achievements, not only as part of the team or the organization.
  • Taking credit for the success of a project, while highlighting the value linked to the success, does not make one "self-centered", but rather signals confidence and readiness for the next challenge.
  • Proactivity (e.g., by applying for the next job) and self-marketing are key skills for any position and critical for promotion. Presenting one’s achievements is not about bragging but about creating visibility.
  • Do not expect managers to be aware of the value that you bring as an employee or manager, but instead always be prepared to have a short (one-minute) pitch on your value proposition and future plans. The ability to be accurate and succinct in the way you present yourself will give you an edge in visibility and positioning.
  • Stop emphasizing past unsuccessful events, negative emotions, and the search for blame. Embrace a growth mindset, learn from your mistakes, and move forward.
  • Decision-makers need to be aware of the underrepresentation of women in the organization across managerial levels and positions. To minimize the unconscious gender bias, top management teams should challenge themselves and ask, "are we automatically offering positions to men while overlooking female candidates with similar skills that may be just as fit for the role?" Decision-makers should be more proactive in encouraging women to take a risk and apply for positions as well as develop their self-confidence.

Professor Amir Grinstein studies and teaches pro-social marketing and entrepreneurship at Northeastern Universities in Boston and VU in Amsterdam. He writes on Twitter about behavioral research @AmirGrinstein

Yana Shechterman is an organizational consultant, executive coach, and part-time lecturer at Northeastern University in Boston. https://yanashechterman.com/

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on November 12, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

The only woman in the room / Photo illustration: Efrat Levi, Globes
The only woman in the room / Photo illustration: Efrat Levi, Globes
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