Emily Marsh

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Unpicking the confidence gap between men and women in leadership

July 30, 2019

Earlier this month, sixteen of Britain’s biggest companies were called out for lagging behind on female representation at the board and senior management level. Of the companies told to up their game, four were in the FTSE 350 and have currently zero women on their board.

Over the last decade, the calls for more women to hold board and senior positions in business has been heard all the way from the Government to the likes of Dame Helena Morrissey. Her 30% Club is a cross-business initiative aimed at achieving 30% women on UK corporate boards by engaging high-profile male supporters.

But despite these efforts and the growing evidence that shows a gender-diverse executive team is linked with greater profitability, stronger working relationships and improved economic and social development, we still don’t have enough women in senior management positions.

So why aren’t more women sitting at the top? What are the biggest challenges for getting more women into leadership positions?

The 'confidence gap'

A study by Cornell University found that despite no difference in the actual performance of men and women, men overestimate their abilities and performance while women underestimate both. We’re all familiar with the term imposter syndrome. Is this what’s holding women back?

On the other hand, there is a strong body of research suggesting that women are just as confident in their abilities and leadership skills as men. Could it be that we’re mistaking the symptom for the cause, and that actually the real issue is that women don’t promote themselves as much as men?

The bigger issue lies in why this might be the case. One study, carried out by researchers at three European business schools, suggests that the appearance of self-confidence isn’t rewarded equally for men and women. The researchers concluded, “The more confident male engineers in our sample appeared to be, the more influence they had in the organisation. Women were able to translate their self-confident image into influence only when they also displayed high prosocial orientation, or the motivation to benefit others.”

A catch 22 for women

As Steṕhanie Thomson, writing for The Atlantic puts it, “While all that most men seem to need in order to succeed in the workplace is a little bit of spunk, women must learn how to master the art of appearing both sure of themselves and modest.”

Another study revealed that people prefer leaders to show stereotypically masculine traits while stereotypically feminine traits are seen simply as nice add-ons. This is what Bianca Barratt describes as the “Catch 22”. Writing for Forbes, she says, “For women to succeed, they are expected to act more stereotypically masculine but those that do so are perceived badly and suffer negative consequences as a result.”

The problem with labels

Research shows that women who adopt stereotypically masculine behaviours as a leader, such as being commanding, are perceived negatively and often labelled as “bossy”. Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, says this is one of the biggest barriers stopping women from going after leadership positions.

When we start to pick the word “bossy” apart, we find that it doesn’t have to be a negative thing. Being bossy can actually be quite useful because it means you get things done and you get other people to get things done too. But, it only ever tends to be used in a negative way and is usually only applied to women. When was the last time you heard a man be described as “bossy”?

Unfortunately, despite how much is happening in the arena of diversity and inclusion, these unconscious biases still exist. As Eric Jaffe writes in an article published by Fast Company, “Women who do break through and claim a traditionally male position are seen to have violated their prescribed norms. Here’s where the woman who should be compassionate acts forcefully and instead of being called decisive gets labelled “brusque” or “uncaring.””

The biggest problem with these labels is that we accept them without question. If you get told enough times that you lack confidence and need to speak up in meetings, you will start believing what you’re being told about yourself. When in reality, you may not be lacking confidence, but actually, you are a classic introvert and just don't need to talk out loud as much as others.

This is where self-awareness, fueled by feedback and a better understanding of your own personality, proves invaluable. If we understand how we are perceived and why we behave in a certain way, we can become more sure of ourselves. If we are more sure of ourselves, we can lead with greater conviction, and as a consequence, yield better results.

Conviction over confidence?

It’s really difficult to change your confidence. But, you can change your conviction. Even by just adding stats or by stating things more simply, you can come across as more assured. At the same time, the leaders we need in business today are those who have conviction, but who are confident enough to put their hand up and say "I don't know". But does everything we’ve discussed here indicate that it is in fact harder for women to act with both confidence AND humility than it is for men?

In our experience, where women often need more support is in encouraging them to play with their strengths and to let go of things they perceive as weaknesses. Ultimately, people are attracted to those they see as “warm” - and “warm” people often lead from a place of self-confidence, conviction, and purpose.

Perhaps the most important message comes from Dame Helena Morrissey: “I felt that to get a seat at the table I had to fit in with everybody else. Whereas now I think for women to succeed we need women to be themselves.”

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Topics: Featured women in leadership


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