Gender inequality in workplaces has been a simmering debate among organisations as well as organisational researchers. Given the long history of this discussion, researchers strive to look beyond the surface and hope to find the root cause of these problems. One of the underlying factors that might play a role is the confidence gap between men and women. In this article, we will introduce the following topics:
- Gender inequality in workplaces
- What is the confidence gap?
- Why does it exist? – Gender differences in nature
- Self-confidence vs self-confidence appearance
- Tips to reduce the gap
Imbalance ratio of gender in workplaces
Countless efforts have been invested to show the inequality in employment for women and men. For example, LeanIn. Org, in collaboration with McKinsey & Company, has been tracking the hiring situation of women in the US since 2015. We can see that even though there is a similar ratio between men and women being hired in the early stage of their career (entry-level), women are still underrepresented in senior positions (LeanIn.org & McKinsey & Company, 2021).
Specifically, they reported that 1.16 of men would be promoted with every woman being promoted to a manager role (with 100 men advanced to manager roles, only 86 women being promoted at the same time). This explains why the overall number of women at a higher position (at the end of the pipeline) is way less than men.
This phenomenon could be caused by various factors, such as the infamous glass ceiling barriers against women, the difference in characteristics of women and men proposed by evolutionary psychology, different life priorities and more (O’Neil & Hopkins, 2015; Hoobler et al., 2011).
While running our own preliminary demographic analysis at Equalture, we found an interesting phenomenon: women tend to (significantly) rate their own professional and linguistic skills at lower scores, compared to men.
This makes us start to think about whether there are actual gaps in these abilities or whether any other underlying factors are causing this phenomenon. One possible explanation for this gender gap could be the differences in self-confidence between women and men.
So buckle up, because in the following sections, we will dive into the current research into gender confidence gaps in workplaces.
Confidence Gap in Workplaces
The level of confidence is an implicit way to communicate our performance and abilities with others (Exley & Kessler, 2019). Some might take confidence as a key indicator of goal achievement and career success. That is, the more confident a person is, the more competent we think they are and the more successful they will be in the future.
Let me ask you a question: if you are interviewing two candidates with equal competencies and qualifications, will you go for the candidate who seems less confident than the other? I assume the answer is pretty clear.
Let me rephrase the question: if you are interviewing a male and a female candidate with equal competencies and qualifications, will you go for the male candidate or a female candidate? We might have different considerations in answering this question.
One of the ongoing arguments is that women may have a lower tendency to self-promote. This could lead to fewer chances of advancing to the next stage in hiring or promoting to a higher position (e.g., Exley & Kessler, 2019; Murciano-Goroff, 2021). For instance, Exley & Kessler (2019) demonstrate that women subjectively tend to rate their ability and performance less favourably than equally performing men, even with the presence of potential employers. Particularly, men rated their performance 33% higher than equally performing women. (Note: participants were asked to rate their performance in maths and science questions).
On the other hand, some researchers found no evidence for the difference between women and men in self-promotion (e.g., Zhao et al., 2005; Altenburger et al., 2017). Specifically, Zhao and colleagues (2005) showed that there is no difference in the entrepreneurial self-efficacy between men and women, but women did show less entrepreneurial intentions compared to men.
Here, doubt comes into my mind: while discussing women’s lack of confidence, do we ever consider that it is also possible that men tend to be overconfident in their capabilities? In fact, Mayo and colleagues (2012) revealed that although men and women are likely to magnify their self-rating in leadership competence compared to peer evaluation, women will more quickly align their self-rating with peer’s review whereas men continue to inflate their self-image.
So, what is exactly happening in this situation? Let’s take a step back and look into the typical social roles of women and men.
Gender: Difference in Nature
Back in ancient times, the social structure was rather simple: men go out hunting and women stay home taking care of children. Men tend (or need) to be more assertive, risk-taking and self-confident to successfully preserve their status in society. On the other hand, women’s indicators of success would be the ability to maintain supportive social relationships with others (Schuh et al., 2014).
What do you think a successful candidate or leader would be? I bet most of the characteristics you describe will mostly overlap with the typical men’s attributes (e.g., ambitious, assertive, dominant; Schuh et al., 2014; Eagly & Karau, 2002).
Providing a social structure is getting more complicated, we have much more responsibility to fulfil other than hunting and parenting. Regardless, the socially shared belief about success is still strongly associated with the typical characteristics of men. Maybe it’s time for us to take these gender differences in nature into consideration before we ask women to be more confident in order to get an equal chance with men.
Self-confidence vs self-confidence appearance
Could you imagine feeling unconfident when getting promoted to a managing position? I bet 99% of you would probably say “yes”, no matter if you are a woman or a man. But why are we only pointing fingers at women, claiming their lack of confidence affects their chances of promotions?
This has to do with the distinction between self-confidence and self-confidence appearance. Simply put, self-confidence is how confident you are about yourself, whereas self-confidence appearance is how others (hiring managers, supervisors, colleagues) perceive your confidence about being able to fulfil your responsibilities at work (Guillén et al., 2018).
When investigating the relationship among job performance, self-confidence appearance and influences in organisations, Guillén and colleagues found different outcomes for men and women. Although they have proven that job performance is positively affecting a person’s self-confidence appearance (for both men and women), the influence obtained in organisations is a totally different story. For men, job performance is directly translated into influence in their organisation through self-confidence. On the contrary, women with high job performance only gained influence when their self-confidence appearance is associated with prosocial orientation (i.e., the motivation to benefit others or having others’ interests in hearts).
This leads to a question: even though women can appear as confident as men are, do we perceive them equally positively as men?
The answer is “no”. Heilman and colleagues (2004) have illustrated that when women show agentic behaviours (e.g., decisive, being assertive) in a male gender-typed job, they are often perceived as hostile, manipulative, selfish and more (Guillén et al., 2018). Even after women have successfully shown their competence, being disliked by others can greatly affect overall evaluation and recommendations regarding the promotions, bonuses or other rewards within organisations. That might be why women would hold back from appearing as confident or even being confident at all.
3 Tips to reduce the gap
All in all, we should look beyond “fixing the women” perspectives, and investigate how an organisational environment can deal with this gap (O’Neil and Hopkins, 2015). Here are some actions suggested by Guillén and colleagues (2018) that you can take to reduce this gender gap in organisations:
Making job requirements for success explicit
Before making personnel decisions such as hiring, promotion, development and evaluation, having a benchmark will largely increase fairness and objectivity. Creating a broad portfolio of skills, including technical expertise and other implicit traits (e.g., communal attributes) would help in standardising the success metrics for everyone.
Monitor promotions and career advancement
Deliberately paying attention to the possible implicit gender biases will raise awareness of the gender gap and help to develop a more inclusive culture. Particularly, we should be aware that women will be easily underestimated unless they show enough warmth, even though they have the same amount of self-confidence compared to their male counterparts.
Highlight a wider array of role models
We as human beings have different kinds of personalities and perspectives. In the same vein, we should also celebrate different kinds of talents. Evaluating various kinds of role models can create a more diverse and inclusive working environment.
Aligning with the complicity of our social roles nowadays, confidence and success should have different shapes and colours. Before we start “blaming” women for lacking confidence and thus losing many chances in advancing in their careers, we should consider (a) the difference in characteristics of women and men in nature, (b) shared beliefs that unfavourably undermine women, and (c) the long-lasting (male gender-typed) organisational culture that disadvantage women.
To everyone out there, good luck in changing the status quo!
Altenburger, K., De, R., Frazier, K., Avtaneev, N., & Hamilton, J. (2017, May). Are there gender differences in professional self-promotion? an empirical case study of LinkedIn profiles among recent MBA graduates. In Proceedings of the international AAAI conference on web and social media (Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 460-463).
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Guillén, L., Mayo, M., & Karelaia, N. (2018). Appearing self‐confident and getting credit for it: Why it may be easier for men than women to gain influence at work. Human Resource Management, 57, 839-854. https://doi.org/10.1002/hrm.21857
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