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The Confidence Gap's Effect in the Workplace

Cornerstone Editors

We all know there's a skills gap in the workplace, but what about the confidence gap? Turns out that women are less confident than men, largely due to social norms conveyed at a young age, and unfortunately this lack of confidence has negative consequences in the workplace.

Ever since Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was published last year, individuals and companies have been focusing on giving women equal opportunities and allowing them to balance their personal and work lives. Just as Sandberg argues that women need to stand up for themselves, Claire Shipman and Katty Kay point to lack of confidence as a culprit in their book The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know.

Females Fear Imperfection

How does lack of confidence play out in the workplace? For starters, women are less likely to voice their opinion and present unique ideas out of fear that their ideas aren’t good enough — that or they fear being labeled as "bossy." Women also underestimate their ability, making them less likely to apply for promotions and jobs, especially if they don’t satisfy all of the requirements, argue Shipman and Kay. With this perfectionist mentality, they aren’t reaching high, they’re standing in place. Women must be over-prepared and overqualified to feel adequate for the job, whereas men can be underprepared and underqualified but will still apply for the job.

When HP rolled out initiatives to promote women to top executive positions several years ago, the company found that a significant contributor to male-dominated leadership was the fact that women weren’t applying for promotions as often as men. "A review of personnel records found that women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job," write Shipman and Kay on The Atlantic. "Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements."

This lack of female confidence keeps women at the bottom of the corporate pyramid and leads to men continuing to rule the top. Yes, women are earning positions on boards and as CEOs of big companies, but only 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are female. And Americans aren’t helping the matter since more would choose to have a male boss over a female one if they had the choice, according to a Gallup poll.

Childhood Is the Time to Make an Impact

While we can’t snap our fingers and change the mentality of most Americans, a meaningful area of focus is on the mindsets of little girls. Lack of confidence stems from childhood: little girls are often treated delicately whereas boys are taught to be daring and risk takers.

Engrained into social norms are these expectations that lead to reduced female confidence. When girls play with dolls and don’t play sports, they are missing out on a key aspect to building confidence and a promising work career. After the Title IX legislation, studies on girls and boys’ participation in school sports "found that girls who play team sports are more likely to graduate from college, find a job, and be employed in male-dominated industries. There’s even a direct link between playing sports in high school and earning a bigger salary as an adult," add Shipman and Kay.

Companies that are making changes to their training and promoting initiatives are helping, but the real impact to be made is with the next generation. The good news is that younger female employees new to the workplace are more likely to be self-confident, ranking themselves equal to or better than men. In fact, 70 percent of Gen Y women described themselves as smart whereas only 54 of Gen Y men did so, according to a Women, Power & Money study by communications firm FleishmanHillard and Hearst Magazines.

As Jessica Valenti, a feminist author of four books, writes on The Guardian, "If we truly want women to be more confident — and for them to be able to express that confidence in a way that creates meaningful change — then we can start by creating a culture that values self-assured women."

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