The gender confidence gap is a myth

Written by
Andrew Dickens

23 Sep 2019

23 Sep 2019 • by Andrew Dickens

This article originally appeared in Issue 3 of Catalyst Magazine

The stereotypical image of the ‘successful executive’ is of a person dripping in self-confidence, even brashness. People are told that, to get ahead, they need to appear confident. One of the many reasons given for the discrepancy in men’s and women’s earnings is that men come across as more assured.

However, research by Laura Guillén, professor of organisational behaviour at international business school ESMT Berlin, shows that women who are viewed as self-confident are not more likely to get ahead. They require extra ingredients: social qualities and the ability to show that they are caring and nurturing. The research, conducted in collaboration with IE Business School and INSEAD, looked at high-performing workers in a male-dominated global tech company. We spoke to Guillén to discuss the findings.

What inspired the research?

When I was doing my professorship, I had a mentor who said to me: “Laura, you have to project a self-confident appearance if you want to succeed.” He was really talking about himself, saying that the secret for success, not only in teaching, but also in organisations, is self-confidence.

That’s when I started discussing self-confidence with colleagues. Of course, there’s a lot of “you have to believe in yourself. If you think that you can, you will make it happen”. But there were some critical views saying that it can also be problematic, because you stop listening to others; you can appear arrogant. That’s when I thought it might not be straightforward and there might be a general angle I’d like to study.

How would you summarise key findings?

The correlation between the confidence you project and your actual self-confidence is very, very small. I think that’s interesting.

The other thing is that the relationship between a self-confident appearance and influence is different for men and women. With men, when they perform well, they appear to be confident and this allows them to gain influence in the organisation.

Women not only have to perform well and appear confident, but must pay attention to their social qualities: whether they are perceived as warm, and the extent to which they are seen to nurture others, being helpful and creating harmony within their team. Without that, a self-confident appearance is not going to pay off.

Why is this happening in practical terms?

There’s a lot of literature around gender stereotyping. The main conclusion is that there are certain expectations for women; gender-traditional roles. Women are expected to have social qualities and men to be self-confident, to make decisions quickly and to be forceful.

Research shows that these subconscious expectations are prevalent and can affect how we judge women in male-dominated professions. When women appear self-confident and authentic, they are successful but are not liked. There is a backlash. The way to override this is to show that you are still a woman – nurturing and helping. This extra requirement is an unwritten rule. Another finding is that men can gain influence even when they have no personal warmth and don’t care about the social side of leadership. This can create an unhealthy culture.

How did you measure confidence?

We spoke to supervisors and others who had frequent interactions with our participants. For example, we asked them to what extent they thought the person they were evaluating was confident in their ability to succeed in their job.

Is this true of all sectors?

We’re talking here about STEM and male-dominated professions, but this is a very conservative test. In the organisation we studied, the proportion of women was 23-25%. In organisations with more women, I think this gender stereotyping would still be prevalent. But we need to do more research to understand it better. How is this bias affecting women’s chances of promotion? If someone performs well, they are more likely to be promoted. However, if both men and women are performing to the same standard, women are still expected to fulfil this unwritten requirement of having positive social qualities. This is a double standard. If organisations want this emphasis on social qualities, then having a caring and inclusive culture is important. They have to measure the behaviour of their employees in this regard, and reward people accordingly: both men and women.

Organisations should think carefully about the qualities needed for success and include a broad portfolio of skills beyond technical expertise and being effective, disseminating fact sheets to this effect among all their employees. If warmth and nurturing are desired, then HR should make this explicit for men and women, during the selection process and in evaluations. 

Should organisations focus more on men’s social qualities?

Absolutely. If we want an inclusive workplace, it has to be inclusive for all. There are not that many case studies, but among the technological companies, Pinterest is doing a lot to go in this direction.

Might the younger generations challenge these stereotypes?

If you read some of the studies that were published in the 1970s, it seems that there has always been a clash between young people entering an organisation and the senior people within it. People’s values tend to change across their lifespan. I’m not convinced that the values of the millennials are that far off those of other generations in the past. Stereotypes have an evolutionary advantage. We need them to navigate our social interactions. Problems arise when these create unfair systematic biases within organisations. I’m not saying that the stereotypes are going to disappear, but that we need to understand and manage them better.

What first steps can firms take to overcome this bias?

They can increase transparency, committing to goals publicly, stating where they currently stand and where they would like to be. This is a starting point for triggering some action.