The Confidence Gap Is A Myth

The Confidence Gap Is A Myth But A Double Standard Does Exist: How Women Can Navigate

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Often when I’m conducting 360 feedback interviews for women in leadership, well-meaning colleagues say, “She should be more confident.” Most times, they are just speculating and don’t really know how the subject feels, so I ask them to describe the behavior that they interpret as lack of confidence. This often leads to some verbal hand-waving around “executive presence.” Definitions of executive presence are a lot like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s assertion about obscenity that “I know it when I see it,” and therefore not terribly helpful. That said, executive presence relates to authority and trustworthiness, which includes projecting confidence. Specific behaviors include: speaking up in meetings, taking up space physically, projecting one’s voice, directness and clarity of speech, asserting oneself and promoting one’s own ideas or work. We read these behaviors as indicators of confidence, and colleagues often infer a lack of confidence when they are absent. Because many of these “executive” behaviors show up more in men, we perceive a “confidence gap.”

However, recent research suggests that women are not actually less confident than men. Several studies found that the reason so many women do not assert themselves in the workplace is not that they lack confidence in their skills, competence or ideas, but instead that they are trying to avoid the “backlash effect”—the social consequence of asserting or promoting themselves. According to Laura Guillen, “While self-confidence is gender-neutral, the consequences of appearing self-confident are not.” Women who project self-confidence are often seen as less likable and are penalized if they “do not temper their agency with niceness.” Women are expected to be both confident and “prosocial”—demonstrating care and concern for others—while men can promote themselves without showing care for others and not be perceived negatively.

Given this reality, simply advising women to demonstrate more confidence is not just bad advice (as it may well backfire); it effectively and unfairly places the burden of correcting the gender imbalance on women. Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office catalogs some 133 mistakes women make!  Many female clients struggle with calibrating their level of assertiveness and relatability. They get pretty discouraged and cynical about their ability to properly thread this needle and become influential within a predominantly male leadership culture. Some even start to doubt themselves.

The longer-term solution is for workplaces to challenge the double standard, support women’s ability to talk about their achievements without backlash and hold men to a higher standard of prosocial behavior. But in the meanwhile, what’s a working gal to do? Here are five strategies for the real world:

  • Understand how you come across. Cultivate awareness of your own physical and verbal mannerisms. Video yourself (cringe!) or ask a friend for help. Cara Hale Alter’s book, “The Credibility Code,” has a great checklist of behaviors (for men and women), to project both authority and approachability. Only if you are self-aware can you make choices about whether your presence matches your best self.
  • Seek out sponsors and role models. Develop relationships with potential sponsors and champions who can promote you and your accomplishments, and look for role models (preferably but not necessarily women) who project both confidence and care. If your manager is not a good candidate for these roles, you may need to look outside of your team or function. Engage in development conversations in which you share your aspirations as well as your accomplishments.
  • Help create opportunity. Psychology professor Jessi L. Smith suggests starting each meeting by inviting everyone around a table to talk about an accomplishment. This way, everyone gets a chance to “blow their own horn.” Be a champion and amplifier for others.
  • Know you are not crazy. There is a double standard and it’s not fair. It is up to you to decide whether and how much to adapt your behavior to try to conform to your workplace’s gender norms. Remember that to thrive professionally, you need to have a sense of self-efficacy and psychological safety. Focus on what is in your control and don’t let circumstances erode your confidence.
  • Build your network. Relationships are key to influencing, and friendships are key to happiness. Even when you are not actively looking for a job, continue to build your external network so you have career mobility if you choose to move on.