The Confidence Gap: what it is and why it’s problematic

Women struggle to negotiate higher salaries for themselves and find it challenging to talk about their achievements or to voice their opinions in meetings, without being interrupted by male peers. The assumption behind these behaviours is that women lack confidence in the workplace, which creates the so-called ‘confidence gap’. Current studies, however, suggest that the confidence gap could be more of a myth, as women have self-confidence, but do not act on it for fear of being perceived as arrogant or bossy.

The Confidence Gap

The confidence gap theory promises that if women behave more like men, if they attain more confidence and are unafraid to speak up, then they will advance in their roles. The reality on the other hand points to the fact that too much assertiveness in women makes them unlikeable, as was proven by the Heidi/Howard study. In this study, students were given the same two stories: one of real-life, female venture capitalist Heidi Roizen and one of fictional, male venture capitalist Howard Roizen. After reading their stories, students had to rank Heidi and Howard in terms of levels of success and likeability.

Both were rated equally successful.  However, Heidi was not only deemed unlikeable but students (male as well as female), said they would not want to work with or for her. “Unless women can temper their assertiveness with more stereotypically feminine traits like empathy and altruism, confidence will do little to advance their careers,” writes Stephanie Thomson for The Atlantic.  At the same time, when women show too little assertiveness, they are overlooked by their superiors, leaving many confused as to how exactly they should behave in the workplace.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the confidence gap theory is that it places the burden of change on women, when in fact the problem is how women are treated when successful. Researchers now suggest that a better way to close the gender gap is to address the gender norms in the business community and aim for a system change rather than getting women to change who they are.

Changing perceptions

Companies can invest in training employees to be aware of the gender biases that are still prevalent in business communities. Managers can arrange workshops addressing unconscious bias or spotlighting results of the latest research on the backlash confident women can face. Businesses should also focus on celebrating the different approaches women have to leadership and management, rather than setting up male leadership and management as the only path to success.

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