Taking these questions in turn, starting with the last:
Question 1: Is there a confidence gap between men and women?
A lot of people think so, including myself. That’s probably true in life in general, but what I’m specifically talking about is the confidence gap that evidences itself in the work place – the way we view our own contribution, the way we participate in meetings, the way we ask for raises and promotions. Every aspect of corporate participation and progression evidences a rift between confidence levels with which men and women approach them.
Here are a few anecdotal statistics and examples:
- In a 2011 survey of British managers asking employees how confident they feel in their professions, half the female respondents reported self-doubt about their job performance and careers, compared with less than a third of male respondents.
- Men initiate salary negotiations four times as often as women do, and when women do negotiate, they ask for 30 % less money than men do.
- When students at a UK business school were recently asked what they expect to earn, and what they deserve to earn, five years after graduation, on average, the men thought they deserve £80,000 a year and the women £64,000—or 20% less.
- In studies, men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both. Their performances do not differ in quality.
- At a study conducted by Hewlett-Packard, women applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 % of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60% of the job requirements.
You get the gist. So, while individual women may disagree with this notion, evidence shows that there is indeed a confidence gap between the way men and women operate in the corporate environment.
Question 2: Why should this matter to us?
The answer is probably obvious, but I’ll spell it out nonetheless: in order for women to progress up the ladder and contribute their most as a significant talent of an organisation, women need the tools, most significantly confidence, to contribute on a level playing field with men. Otherwise, we will continue to work in organisations where boards are made up of men of largely similar backgrounds, coming up with ideas and solutions that are not particularly insightful, viewing the world from a very similar perspective, denying the company opportunities to evolve and prepare for the future. And companies really do need to prepare for a future that is changing so fast it’s impossible to predict it five years in advance, let alone a decade. This is therefore the time when companies should draw on all their diverse talent, to encourage and motivate people of all backgrounds to contribute their most so that all ideas and perspectives can be heard and considered.
And while true diversity is the ultimate goal, it is quite difficult to institute the kind of changes that would provide a level playing field to all talent of a diverse background or perspective. We should, of course, continue to strive for it, but perhaps there are things we can do in the interim that will help us progress towards that ideal state. I believe that this next step – and the most effective way to inject diversity into decision-making bodies - is to increase the representation of women in these bodies. And to do that, we need to ensure women are equipped with the same tool kit as men.
Question 3: How do we bridge the gap?
Confidence is one of the most elusive of skills, and even when we succeed in becoming more confident, we all go through bouts of loss of confidence or self-assuredness. Resilience, therefore, is the other side of the coin that we need in order to bridge that gap.
If the aim is to encourage gender diversity at top company levels, then companies must invest in helping their female talent bridge the confidence gap. To get the most contribution from their talent, companies ought to invest in providing the support women need to contribute their best. And there’s a role for women to play here as well. I encourage each woman to observe her own actions over the span of her career and ask: have there been instances in which you have limited your own success because of fear of failure or fear of being perceived incompetent? Have there been instances when you passed up opportunities because you were afraid to speak up? Have you avoided networking opportunities or casual conversations with potential stakeholders in your career because you were afraid that you might not come across as valuable or significant – or worse- be found out as the imposter that you think you are? If you’ve had these thoughts in the past, chances are, you have limited your career in such a way that men (generally speaking) don’t do. So do what you have to in order to eject the fear factor and to start bridging that gap. Go to a confidence building workshop, work with a mentor or a coach. Do whatever it takes, but don’t let it hold you back.
The beauty of confidence is that it builds on its own success! So once you’ve taken a small step to overcome the one big fear that has been looming ahead, the success of this accomplishment alone builds enough confidence to tackle the next step. In fact, this repeating process is so powerful that what we women need is often just a jump start!
Of course it’s also the case that confidence can be knocked again by the lack of success of an action. This is why we also need to build resilience and a set of tools that we can pool out of our kit to build ourselves back up again. Tools like asking yourself the right questions, correctly analysing the risks of failure, correctly evaluating what’s at stake if we do or don’t take action, if we do or don’t succeed. Incorporating these tools into our behaviours takes time and practice, but as we get better at using them, our confidence continues to grow and with it, the benefits of a more fulfilling career.
Founder and MD, Voice At The Table Ltd, empowering women to speak up and progress on their