Studies confirm that women experience and are perceived to have lower levels of confidence in professional settings compared with men. The gender confidence gap widens significantly within only two to five years of entering the workforce.
Lower levels of confidence prevent female talent from contributing fully to the workplace and achieving their full potential, negatively impacts the career progression of women—hampering organisational efforts to build a pipeline of female leaders for executive-level roles, and contributes to the gender pay gap.
The Case for Gender Diversity
A growing body of research globally shows consistent links between gender diversity at senior levels and improved organisational outcomes. Positive outcomes include:
- Industry outperformance
- Increased productivity
- Increased profitability
- Better stock growth
- Higher customer satisfaction
- Improved problem-solving and performance on complex tasks
- Increased innovation and creativity
- Lower corporate fraud
- Improved corporate sustainability and CSR efforts
McKinsey report that if every country matched the progress towards gender parity of its fastest-moving neighbour, global GDP could increase by up to $12 trillion in 2025.
In Australia, Goldman Sachs and JB Were report that a 6% increase in the female work participation rate would boost GDP by 11%.
Women in Leadership
Despite evidence that links gender diversity with improved organisational outcomes, shifting the dial on gender diversity in leadership is painfully slow.
Grant Thornton’s research reveals that the proportion of women in senior leadership roles globally has hit 25%. However, this is an increase of just one percent since 2016, and six percent in the 13 years since the research began. Australia lags the global average with the proportion of women in senior leadership roles at 23%. When it comes to the role of the female CEO, at just 3%, following five years of decline, Australia has slipped well below the global average of 12%
The Role of Confidence in the Gender Gap
There are many explanations for the under-representation of women at senior leadership level. Some observers say children change our priorities, and there is some truth in this claim. Maternal instincts do contribute to a complicated emotional tug between home and work lives, a tug that, at least for now, isn’t as fierce for most men. Other commentators point to cultural and institutional barriers to female success. Others cite unconscious or conscious gender bias and prejudices. There’s truth in that, too. These are all valid external barriers to greater representation of females at leadership levels, but these explanations for a continued failure to break the glass ceiling are missing something more basic: women’s acute lack of confidence compared with men. If women are less likely to lean into opportunities, opportunities are less likely to come to them.
More About The Gender Confidence Gap
Quantifying the Gender Confidence Gap
In 2014, Bain released the results of its study on workplace confidence and ambition.
The results showed that women embark on careers with high expectations and aspirations for advancement, but this confidence evaporates dramatically as they enter mid-career.
Nearly half of all new female employees aspire to top management but, within five years, only 16 percent still hold that ambition; this compares with 34 percent 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.
Causes of the Gender Confidence Gap
The origin of the gender confidence gap is multi-faceted.
Researchers studying gender socialisation have identified a range of contrasting societal expectations that are imposed on girls and boys from an early age and that profoundly impact how adult women and men come to think and behave.
- Girls are taught to cooperate. Boys are taught to compete.
- Girls are taught to build rapport. Boys are taught to establish status differentials.
- Girls are taught to strive for perfection. Boys are taught to strive for improvement.
- Girls are praised for results. Boys are praised for effort.
- Girls are taught to be modest. Boys are taught to self-promote.
- Girls achievements are attributed to luck and the efforts of others. Girls failures are attributed to intrinsic flaws. Boys achievements are attributed to hard work and their own efforts. Boys failures are attributed to back luck and external circumstances.
- Girls are taught to be careful and play it safe. Boys are taught to take risks.
Bain identified three critical causes of the marked confidence dive that women experience early in their careers linked to the business environment.
- Women are less likely to see themselves fitting into the typical stereotypes of success within their company
- Women experience less support for their career aspirations from their managers
- Women have fewer roles models in senior or top management at their company
Implications of the Gender Confidence Gap
Richard Petty from Ohio State University defines confidence as “the stuff that turns thoughts into action”. The opposite highlights that the consequence of a lack of confidence is inaction. The gender confidence gap means that women are more likely than men to hold back at work.
Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg has popularised the term ‘lean in’ to encourage women to overcome their inaction caused as a result of low confidence. In her bestseller book by the same name, Sheryl draws from a vast body of research to support that women hold themselves back at work in multiple ways to their professional detriment. More specifically, women feel confident ‘leaning in’ at work only when they are perfect, or practically perfect, whereas underqualified and underprepared men are much more comfortable leaning into opportunities.
Less likely to apply for promotions and stretch assignments
Hewlett-Packard discovered this several years ago when it was trying to figure out how to get more women into top management positions. Women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. In contrast, men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements. At HP, and in subsequent similar studies, the data confirm what we instinctively know – women hold back from taking career risks more than men.
Less likely to negotiate a salary increase
As well as women being more reluctant to apply for promotions, women are less likely to bargain over salary increases. Studies show that men initiate salary negotiations four times as often as women and when they do negotiate they ask for 30% less money compared with men.
Less likely to be perceived as a leader
Male managers report that their female colleagues are less likely to speak up in meetings or appear less confident when presenting or pitching to internal stakeholders or external clients. Entrenched leader stereotypes that link confidence with competence mean that negative perceptions of a women’s confidence act as a drag on a woman’s career. Even when women do put themselves forward for stretch assignments or promotions, they may be rated less positively than more confident male candidates, regardless of whether or not they are more competent because of a perceived lack of confidence. This is particularly relevant for roles which are perceived to require high degrees of confidence such as sales or leadership.
Lower self-estimates of ability and performance
In one example, women rated themselves more negatively than the men did on scientific ability: on a scale of 1 to 10, the women gave themselves a 6.5 on average, and the men scored themselves a 7.6. When it came to assessing how well they answered the questions after they sat a test, the women thought they got 5.8 out of 10 questions right; men, 7.1. And how did they actually perform? Their average was almost the same—women got 7.5 out of 10 right and men 7.9.
The participants were then invited—having no knowledge of how they’d performed—to participate in a science competition for prizes. The women were much more likely to turn down the opportunity: only 49 percent of them signed up for the competition, compared with 71 percent of the men. Women are less confident in their abilities and performance and less likely to lean into opportunities.
Less likely to own one's achievements and more likely to internalise failure
Studies show that women have a tendency to credit circumstance or other people for their successes. Men seem to do the opposite, crediting their success to their efforts and talents.
The reverse is true for attributions of failures.
Whereas women tend to attribute failure to their lack of intrinsic capability or effort, men tend to blame failure on external circumstances like the difficulty of the task.
David Dunning, a Cornell psychologist has noticed that during a Math’s Ph.D. programme, in a module that is particularly difficult, male students typically recognise the hurdle for what it is, and respond to their lower grades by saying “wow, this is a tough class”. That is an external attribution. External attributions are usually a healthy sign of resilience. However, he noticed that women tend to respond differently. When the course gets hard women are more likely to attribute their lower grades to a lack of innate ability. That’s an internal attribution and it can be debilitating.
Moreover, while men tend to contain a failure to that particular instance, women have a tendency to respond to failure in a more global way –doubting all of their abilities and questioning their entire self-worth.
This makes failure particularly aversive to women. If any particular instance of failure is perceived as a negative reflection on one’s entire capability or global self-worth, any situation that provides an opportunity for failure can be enormously threatening to a women’s self-concept. Compared with men, women are more likely to avoid situations where there is a possibility of failure in an attempt to protect their self-concept and self-esteem.
About Our High Potential Leadership Program For Women
Addressing the gender confidence gap is a critical component of an organisation’s efforts to empower female talent and drive higher levels of gender diversity at senior leadership. Include-Empower.Com’s High Potential Leadership Program for Women enhances intrinsic self-confidence and transfers skills for communicating with confidence when interacting with peers, managers and subordinates as well as with stakeholders external to the organisation.
Techniques for Developing Intrinsic Self-Confidence
Self-Limiting Beliefs and Rewriting the Narrative
- Exploring the Strength of Your Inner Critic
- Your Emotional Triggers
- Identifying Self-Limiting Beliefs
- Techniques to Challenge Self-Limiting Beliefs
- Rewriting the Narrative
Recognising Your Value and Owning Your Achievements
- The Nature and Origin of Gender Bias in Attributions
- Taking Stock of Your Achievements
- Reframing Your Perceived Failures
Identifying Role Models
- Why You Can’t Be What You Can’t See
- The Positive Effects on Confidence and Performance of Role Models
- Identifying Role Models
Managing Difficult Emotions
- Understanding Emotions
- Understanding Stress
- Techniques for Managing Fear & Anxiety
Imagining Your Best Possible Future
- Outcome and Performance Visualisation
- Identifying Your Values
- Defining Your Personal & Professional Aspirations
- Creating a Vivid Mental Picture of Your Best Possible Future
Recognising and Applying Your Character Strengths
- Diagnosing Your Character Strengths
- Applying Your Character Strengths to Achieve Your Goals
- Using Your Character Strengths to Manage Obstacles
Improving Risk Taking with a Growth Mindset
- Fixed vs. Growth Mindset Theory
- Negative Consequences of a Fixed Mindset
- Techniques for Developing a Growth Mindset
Resilience & Grit
- Defining Grit and its Characteristics
- Defining Resilience and its Characteristics
- Techniques for Developing Grit & Resilience
Techniques for Leading Confidently
Female vs. Male Linguistic Patterns
- Gendered Communication Styles
- Female Linguistic Patterns that Convey Low Confidence
- Managing Masculine Linguistic Patterns such as Ritual Opposition and Mansplaining
Finding Your Voice
- Benefits of Speaking Up
- Calming Your Nerves
- Vocal Techniques for Speaking With Confidence
- Tips For Effective Presentations
- Managing Interruptions and Objections
- Managing the Gender Assertiveness Penalty (Communicating Assertively with Warmth)
- Seven Elements of Executive Presence
- The Scientific Benefits of ‘Faking It Till You Make It’
Responding to Bias
- The Nature & Origin of Gender Bias
- Types of Gender Bias
- Techniques for Responding to Bias
- Supporting Other Women
- Understanding Influencing Styles
- Identifying Your Dominant Influencing Style
- Mapping Influencing Styles to Different Scenarios
- Confident Decision-Making and Leadership
- Improving Decision Making Through Diversity
- Value-based Decision Making
- Identifying and Articulating Your Purpose
- Linking Your Purpose to Your Work
- Setting Goals for Achieving Your Purpose
- Communicating Your Purpose
- Practicing Your Purpose
Social Media Influence
- Purpose and Power of Social Media
- Building a Strong Profile Page
- Using Social Media to Strengthen Your Personal Brand
- Engaging on Social Media
- Networking on Social Media
- The ‘What, When and How Often?’ of Content Sharing
- Responding to Comments
- Writing Your Own Content
- The Value of Networks
- Corporate Politics
- Building a Strong Professional Networking
- Nurturing Your Network
- Harnessing Your Network
Workshop participants will:
develop the capability to communicate with greater confidence when interacting with peers, managers and subordinates as well as with stakeholders external to the organisation
acquire an increased willingness to speak up at work and contribute to work processes and decision-making
acquire an increased willingness to apply for and accept stretch assignments and promotions.
Workshop participants leave with a personalised development plan for practicing and developing their leadership confidence, including an assessment of current strengths, areas for improvement and potential barriers to success.
Consistent with research on adult learning, we believe that the best learning outcomes result when participants engage holistically with program content. All Include-Empower learning and development programs incorporate experiential learning techniques, including opportunities to reflect on and apply learnings to the real-life challenges facing participants.
High potential female talent seeking to progress to leadership roles. Many of the modules are also applicable to high potential male emerging leaders.
The High Potential Leadership Program for Women is an intensive modular-based program designed to be delivered flexibility to meet varied client needs. The program may be delivered in whole or in part, consecutively over five days or spread out over a longer period, for example, one day for 6 months or as half-day sessions over a year. Each module can also be run as a stand-alone intervention. Clients may choose to tailor the program by mapping modules to specific needs identified in their engagement surveys or employee professional development plans. While the program is designed for women, emerging male leaders may also benefit from many of the program modules.
Recommended workshop size is 10-20 participants. For groups of 20-30 participants, we recommend two facilitators.
- Group Mentoring for Emerging Female Leaders
- Engaging Men in Gender Equality
- Inclusive Leadership Training
- Peer Coaching Circles for Inclusive Leadership
- Developing Psychological Safety
- Unconscious Bias and Mindful Inclusion
- Cultural Intelligence & Inclusion
- Bite-Sized Diversity and Inclusion Workshops
- Having trouble engaging men in gender equality? Try these tips
- Before sending female talent to confidence training for women, consider inclusive leadership
- IWD2018: How to #PressforProgress on gender equality
- McKinsey’s latest report on advancing gender diversity in Asia Pacific
- Mind your micro-biases: Subtle slights that exclude
- How to develop psychological safety and a speak-up culture
- How does employee well-being link to diversity and inclusion?
- Gender bias at work: Competence evaluation bias and the argument for targets
- Gender bias at work: The assertiveness double-bind
- The many guises of gender bias at work: Gendered feedback
- Gender bias at work: The glass cliff
- Unconscious gender bias: Putting more rungs on the ladder
- A-ha activities for unconscious bias training
- Why women don’t always call out casual sexism
- How men can become better allies to women (HBR)