Closing The Gender Divide: Why Confidence and Leaning In Alone Won't Cut It

Research shows that women tend to underestimate their worth, even when they perform better than their male counterparts. But cultivating confidence is just one small part of the fix.

It’s a leadership catch 22. While we can all agree that confidence is an essential tool for career success, a raft of research indicates that women are less likely to speak up in meetings, negotiate for raises or promotions, and generally underestimate their ability to perform.

When women are selected less often to lead than their male peers, even though they outperform the guys, it’s no wonder the gender gap persists.

A recent survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers and Strategy& found that in eight out of the last 10 years, there have been more women heading into the corner office than stepping out. Despite that encouraging trend, female CEOs comprised only 3% of leaders of public companies in 2013, a 1.3 percentage point drop from 2012. And they’re more likely to be forced out.

But why?

Books such as The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, Find Your Courage by Margie Warrell, and even The Next Generation of Women Leaders by Selena Rezvani all suggest that the chasm is caused by the gap between competence and confidence.

There’s plenty of science to lend credence to their theory.

Take the cognitive bias revealed back in 1999. Now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, named for the scientists who led the research, it essentially proves two things:

  1. That unskilled people tend to think they’re more competent than they actually are.
  2. That those people who are quite competent display a distinct lack of confidence in their abilities.

The latter is mostly associated with impostor syndrome which has led even the most highly successful women like Tina Fey, Meryl Streep, and Sheryl Sandberg feeling like frauds.

According to a study from Indiana University, female medical students who performed equally or better than their male peers in the classroom, reported that their confidence level was actually falling and causing increased anxiety. What’s worse, their evaluators consistently rated them lower on the confidence scale when watching them interact with patients.

A doctor who is unable to project a sense of confidence to their patients isn’t going to be very successful, no matter how high their grades. Likewise, a CEO or team leader needs to be able to take charge without hesitation.

But psychological bias seems to be holding us back. Indeed, a 2012 study published in the journal of the Sociologists for Women in Society found that high school math teachers still believe that males are more competent than other students, even though other research indicates that male and female students get similar grades in both math and science.

Given the recent brouhaha over the firing of Jill Abramson, and the language used to describe her leadership skill set, it’s apparent that getting more women in the C-suite is going to take more than a head held high aloft confidently squared shoulders.

Especially when you consider that tooting their own horns actually makes female leaders sweat. The Psychology of Women Quarterly published the results of a study in which, female students had to write a scholarship application essay extolling their virtues and another to promote someone else. The result: women displayed decreased motivation and performance when attempting to pat themselves on the back.

What to do?

A twist in the experiment revealed something surprising. Some women filling out the application for themselves were told that there was a subliminal noise generator in the room—and it might bother them. It wasn’t real, but those that believed they were being influenced by something unpleasant were able to escape the traditional "modesty" norm and perceived their work to be higher quality.

Playing such subliminal tricks on female employees in the real world of work isn’t the answer. Instead, medical sociologist Dr. Frankel suggests a different approach based on the Indiana University research:

"Our finding of decreased confidence among female medical students is important because it makes it very clear that somewhere in the training of future physicians, the issue of confidence needs to be addressed. Accomplishing this may be as straightforward as increasing faculty sensitivity and changing some simple learned behavior, but we will need more research to fully understand this phenomenon and its implications for medical education."

Support, even in the face of failure is one way to foster the female leader. As Susan Glasser writes at Politico:

"The leaders who succeed are the ones who are allowed to make mistakes, who have the time and space and breathing room and support from their bosses to push and prod, experiment and improvise until they get it right. Because all of journalism is in the midst of upheaval right now, and that Silicon Valley cliché about failing in order to succeed really does apply. It turned out I did not really have the support of my boss, and I believe that to be the actual—and much more prosaic—story of many of these contretemps over controversial editors and executives who happen to be women."

Jessica Valenti, columnist for the Guardian U.S. and founder of argues that no amount of confidently leaning in will turn the tide for women unless corporate culture changes, too. "How can we enact the power of women's confidence when there are no women in the room?" she posits, observing that the speaker lineup for the Wall Street Journal’s tech conference was all male. "You can't self-help away deeply ingrained structural discrimination," she writes.

Bottom line, Valenti says: ‘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."

[Image: Flickr user zoë biggs]

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  • Devon Schneider

    Great article...but for the paragraph that starts, "According to a study from Indiana University... ." The last word of that paragraph is misspelled, and makes me think twice before tweeting this article.

  • Devon Schneider

    Sorry - just signed in and realized I am not the first to pick up on that typo. However, I think it is incredibly important to have zero grammar/spelling errors in any kind of article. It's not a small thing, it's a big thing, though obviously it's understandable given the age of autocorrect on most text/typing devices.

  • Paula Lozar

    A related point: I wasn't surprised to read the stories today about how non-diverse Google is. I worked in Silicon Valley in the 80's and 90's, and, like Google, it was a male world; a woman was ipso facto taken less seriously than a man, no matter how good she was at her job. What's sad is how little has changed in the past 20 years.

    But "confidence" usually doesn't help much. The old cliche about male vs. female managers -- "He's forceful; she's a b!tch" -- is absolutely true. If you're a woman, you're expected to do your job quietly and well, and let your male colleagues take credit for your good results, or you're not a "team player."

  • Yesterday I attended a session presented by Professor Michael Bernard who, over the past 20 years, has researched the attributes of high performers and how these attributes can be developed. He has identified 3 necessary commitments for high performance - commitment to success, commitment to others and commitment to self. On reading this article I couldn't help but consider that perhaps women are disproportionately strong on commitment to success and to others but lower on commitment to self which incorporates attitudes and behaviours around self acceptance, positive self regard, authenticity, positive focus and healthy living. Perhaps a good dose of High Performance Mindset development would go a long way to closing the gender gap in the senior ranks of business?

  • Suleman Ali

    It's important to realise this is a uphill battle. Most men are apathetic to promoting women. It'll take a while to convince women they are as good as men at everything and they don't need any type of validation by men. Women are in general too responsive to hierarchical structures, able to play by the rules, but perhaps not good at challenging them. That's where they need to become more independent.