I run confidence training workshops for women. I believe in the value of confidence training for women because I experienced crippling anxiety in my professional life. Studies show that I am not alone.
Women, on average, experience lower levels of professional confidence compared with men. The women who attend my workshops share common stories of being hesitant to speak up at work, of their reluctance to put themselves forward for promotions or stretch assignments, of their worry that they will fail, of their insecurities regarding being not ‘good enough, smart enough, attractive enough, strong enough’.
The gender confidence gap has detrimental effects on women’s careers. Confidence is often equated with competence, and this is particularly true for leadership roles. When women display lower levels of confidence compared with men, they can be passed over for promotion on concerns that they will not be effective influencers, both inside and outside the organisation. A lack of confidence may also prevent women from stepping outside their comfort zones and taking steps to develop new skills and relationships, which can leave them trailing behind men. While the confidence gap cannot account for the entire gender gap at leadership, there is little doubt that it contributes to the challenge of building a gender-balanced executive team. Organisations seeking to realise the competitive benefits of gender diverse leadership are therefore interested in solutions for boosting the confidence of their female staff. Women are encouraged by their employers to attend confidence-building workshops or are coached by their male managers to be more confident.
A male friend of mine once told me, “I want to put forward one of my female staff for promotion, but I don’t think she’s confident enough to step into a more senior role”. He shared that he was going to pass that feedback onto her. Hmm. I asked him what he thought the impact on her confidence would be when she learned that she had been passed over for a promotion because she wasn’t confident enough? My questioning helped my friend to see that his strategy could backfire by further damaging his subordinate’s self-confidence. I asked him to consider whether there was a better approach. He suggested that he could help build her confidence by acknowledging her achievements and strengths rather than critiquing her confidence.
This little story has a BIG message. There are better ways for organisations to empower women than coaching and training in confidence-building strategies. The alternative to sending women on confidence training is to coach managers on how small changes in their behaviours and interactions with women can prevent gender differences in self-confidence from developing in the first place. To understand why changing leadership behaviour is a better solution to the gender confidence gap compared with formal training or coaching, we need to understand the nature and origin of the gender confidence gap.
Contrary to gender stereotypes, women do not enter the workforce less confident than men. Indeed, researchers have shown that women are not innately less confident than men. There is no statistically significant difference in confidence (albeit during adolescence) between the genders, yet in professional settings, a significance confidence gap appears between the genders within 2-5 years of women joining the workforce. Nearly half of all new female employees aspire to top management but, within five years, only 16 per cent still hold that ambition; this compares with 34 per cent of men who begin their careers with aspirations that they will reach the top and remain so after two or more years of experience. The marked drop in female aspiration is matched by a fall in professional confidence whereas men experience a much smaller fall in confidence over the same period. Something happens in professional settings that has a relatively greater depletive effect on the self-confidence of women compared with men.
Exploring to the causes behind the decline in professional confidence and ambition of women, Bain found a 39% decline between new and experienced women in feeling that they fit in in terms of meeting typical stereotypes of success within the company, vs. 23% decline for men. Survey responses from experienced women indicated that the dearth of women in upper management to serve as role models hampered progress toward gender parity. Female role models inspire women and are a source of resilience for coping with stressful situations that they encounter in their careers.
Other studies show that women are rated at lower levels of competence compared with men, women receive more negative subjective assessments in performance appraisals, women are interrupted more than men, women’s ideas are often attributed to men, the mistakes of women are penalised more harshly than mistakes made by men, women are more likely to experience harassment at work compared with men, and women are discriminated against in employment more than men. We are not suggesting that men get it easy at work, but they do get it easier and the extra scrutiny, criticism and disrespect experienced by women carry a heavier toll. While not all workplace bias is blatant or intentional, even subtle slights, over time, can devalue and discourage women.
Given the role of context on the gender confidence gap, the value of confidence training and coaching is limited. While effective for transferring strategies to women that they can employ to buffer the confidence-depletive impact of workplace bias, confidence training and coaching will not cure the cause, only treat the symptoms. Post training, women return to the workforce with heavier armour but they, and the next generation of emerging female leaders, continue to experience a less supportive and more hostile work setting compared with male colleagues.
Organisations and leaders that don’t recognise this and don’t invest in efforts to change the way women experience the workplace will continue to struggle to build a pipeline of female leaders. In contrast, organisations that take the harder route initially of disrupting biased work practices and mindsets that chip away at female confidence will win the war for top female talent, improve the engagement and retention of women, and achieve higher rates of female progression and greater success building gender-balanced leadership teams over the longer term.