Mind the confidence gap

Last week I went to assessment centre for a role that involved leading teams and projects within an international development organisation. Speaking to others towards the end of the day about how they thought their one-to-one interviews went, I noticed something. The male candidates were extremely up-beat about their interviews whilst the women were significantly more reserved.

A few of these women ended up having a brief discussion about how well they thought they sell themselves and again the outcome was not positive. They found it difficult to give themselves credit for their contribution to work as part of a team, they perceived many of their achievements as less down to their own knowledge and skills than a good dose of luck and generally, they disliked the feeling of arrogance associated with telling people what they were good at. Certainly not an ideal situation in which to face an interview panel.

Worryingly, these young women are not alone. It is generally acknowledged that women find self-promotion more difficult than men. They are four times less likely to ask for a pay rise than men, they won’t apply for a job unless they can demonstrate that they meet 100 % of the criteria (men only need to meet 60 % before they will apply) and they consistently under-predict their abilities (whilst men consistently over-predict their abilities).

It looks like as a gender, women have a confidence problem. Plenty has been written about imposter syndrome and how high-flying women often suffer from the idea that despite all evidence to the contrary, they are not good enough and that their accomplishments are undeserved. Part of the problem is that, even sub-consciously, women are viewed differently to men in the workplace. Women’s mistakes are more likely to be remembered for longer, whilst their successes are more easily forgotten, women are judged on their experience, whilst men are judged on their potential, and women are expected to take on more of the “office housework” – the tasks that keep an office running but don’t do anything to advance your career.

Women are expected to be more modest and community-minded than men, and being assertive can often come at the price of being labelled an arrogant bitch. Take, for example, the research that shows that female politicians are seen as more power-seeking than male politicians campaigning for the same position and that power-seeking is viewed as being unsupportive and uncaring in women but as being assertive and competent in men. What’s more, when female politicians are described as power-seeking, voters express feelings of contempt, anger or disgust towards them.

Women need to be proud of their achievements, to give themselves credit for those accomplishments and combine both “feminine” and “masculine” traits to be assertive or approachable in the workplace as the situation requires. Transformations will not happen overnight, but confidence can grow and attitudes can change. As more women break through to the highest levels of management, the view of women in the world of work will continue to change and they will be seen as more equal with their male counterparts. It may be a slow process but if women support one another, the view from the top will change. Women in positions of power need to support and mentor those around them to help other women climb the ladder. Women should form support networks where they can broadcast the achievements and successes of colleagues whilst those colleagues do the same in return without feeling like they are bragging.

As for the women that I met last week, I hope that their lack of self-confidence does not prevent them from getting the roles that they are aiming for. They had a wealth of valuable experience and I’m convinced they would be good at the job they were applying for.

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