What the confidence gap means for women’s careers

Studies show women are less likely to put themselves forward for new opportunities than men. What are the professional and financial implications of this confidence gap?

For leadership expert Michelle Sales, there’s one particular memory that stands out on the historic day in 2010 when Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female prime minister.

“A friend of mine has a red-headed daughter who was about ten at the time,” recalls Sales. “She came home from school that day and said I’m going to be prime minister when I grow up.”

When her mother asked why, the girl replied, “because it’s possible!”

It’s an exchange that perfectly illustrates the truth behind American lawyer and civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman’s famous quote: “You can’t be what you can’t see”.

To succeed, we need role models like Gillard to lead the way and show us what we can achieve, says Sales. “When women look up into executive roles and don’t see female role models, it’s more difficult to see themselves applying for those roles.”

 “You can’t be what you can’t see” –Marian Wright Edelman

This could help explain the results of an oft-quoted survey that found that women applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 per cent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men, on the other hand, were happy to apply when they met just 60 per cent of the job requirements.

The confidence gap

Some cite a confidence gap that separates the sexes to explain this finding. “Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities,” write Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in The Atlantic.

It turns out success isn’t always a cure for a lack of confidence. Even the most successful women in the world are plagued by negative self-talk. “There are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told Kay and Shipman.

This lack of confidence means women often miss out on new opportunities. If a woman doesn’t put her hand up for roles and projects she needs to develop as a leader, says Sales, she’ll never gain the necessary experience to snag the executive role she’s always wanted.

“There are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am” –Sheryl Sandberg

Another issue is women’s tendency to play by the rules, a preference we pick up early in life. Women’s leadership expert Tara Mohr conducted her own research into why men and women choose not to apply for certain roles. The results showed that far more women than men based their decision on the guidelines about who should apply – in other words, they were simply following the rules.  

“Girls are strongly socialized to follow the rules and in school are rewarded, again and again, for doing so,” Mohr writes in the Harvard Business Review. It’s a habit that holds back women in their careers,Mohr argues.

Financial implications

This cautious approach impacts a woman’s financial security throughout her life. In her book That’s What She Said, Joanne Lipman writes that men are far more likely to advocate on their own behalf for incentives like salary and other benefits.

She cites a study by Carnegie Mellon University economics professor Linda Babcock, who found that men are four times more likely than women to ask for a raise. When women do ask, they typically request 30 per cent less than men do. 

Lipman argues that this discrepancy is a major contributing factor to the gender pay gap, currently at 14.1 per cent in Australia.

It affects women in retirement too. In Australia, where the median superannuation balance is $36,000 for women and $110,000 for men, women retire with around half the resources of their male colleagues.  

But the truth is talented and capable women have every reason to be confident. Sales offers some words of support for women keen on advancing their careers: manage negative self-talk and let people know where you want to go in your career. “Be clear on what you’re great at – know your strengths,” she says. “Confidence is not based on our ability, but our belief in our ability.”

 “Confidence is not based on our ability, but our belief in our ability.”

Nicola Heath is a freelance journalist based in Newcastle, NSW. She writes about health, social affairs and the workplace for publications including INTHEBLACK, HRM and CEO Magazine. Her work has also been published at The Guardian, ABC, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Daily, SBS Voices and Eureka Street. She’s passionate about women’s leadership, gender equality and social equity.

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