Anywhere in the world, there’s a tendency to assume that confidence is a key ingredient to success. Since women are generally less successful than men, it’s probably because they are not as confident. Research from the World Economic Forum illustrates how this plays out, particularly in STEM fields.
The solution couldn’t be simpler. Let’s just tell women around the world to boost their self-belief, lean in, or “just go for it” and all their problems will go away. Perhaps the resulting gender parity will also boost economic prosperity. As The Economist noted: “If the gender gaps in participation, hours worked and productivity were all bridged, the world economy would be $28.4 trillion (or 26%) richer.”
The truth is that telling women to be more confident is a silly idea, and there are five reasons why.
There is no evidence that women are under confident
Large-scale scientific studies suggest that women have a tendency to overestimate their own abilities, talents, and competence, though significantly less than men do with their own. In other words, humans are generally overconfident and unrealistically optimistic, but the tendency to distort reality in one’s favor is significantly more pronounced in men than women. This does indicate that there are more self-aware women than men, which has been supported by a range of research.
Boosting your confidence isn’t always useful
It’s only useful if your goal is to fool others into thinking that you are more competent than you actually are. This explains the prevalence of narcissistic leaders. Leaving this deception strategy aside, you are much better off boosting your competence.
Note that in any area of competence, there is only a small degree of overlap between confidence (how good you think you are) and competence (how good you actually are), which means that one will often come without the other. Not sure about you, but personally I would rather have a dentist, boss, or even a cab driver who is competent rather than confident. The same goes for presidents and heads of states. We have a tendency to vote for those who display confidence, whether or not we are able to detect their actual competence.
Women are often punished for displaying confidence
Telling women to lean in is problematic for several reasons. It puts the blame on them for the social barriers and glass ceilings that explain their underrepresentation at the highest level of any organizational hierarchy. But we also know that when women behave in dominant and assertive ways, too many people–many of whom are other women–are put off by their apparent lack of femininity.
This “double-bind” highlights a lose-lose situation for women. When they don’t behave like pathologically ambitious men, we assume they are disinterested in leadership and success, or that their passion is to be a housewife or second-class citizen. But when they do show drive and assertiveness, we are intimidated or repulsed by their lack of archetypical femininity.
Leadership demands competence in soft skills
People still tend to think of leadership as a game of force and power and have selected leaders based on their outsize masculinity for decades. But the essence of high-performing leadership is competence, humility, and integrity rather than confidence, charisma, and narcissism.
This calls for not just more female leaders but also more male leaders who do not display the traditional macho features that align with our flawed leadership archetypes. As Oliver Burkeman noted, “the answer to a world with too many overconfident fools is not to train everyone else to be overconfident.” Instead of asking women to behave like incompetent men, let’s stop promoting incompetent men to leadership roles until they start to emulate competent women (and men).
Get rid of benevolent sexism
When we blame women for their misfortunes relative to men, we are engaged in benevolent sexism. It’s like telling women they are too kind and caring to be leaders, and that they need to change themselves in order to compete.
This type of narrative is a bulletproof strategy to avoid acknowledging that nepotism and sexism exist. It also relies on the assumption that the world is as good as it could be and that women need changing in order to compete with the male ruling class. If this were true, then we would have to accept that our current leaders, presidents, CEOs, and prime ministers are as good as it gets.
This is at odds with common sense. Throughout the industrialized world today, women outperform and outnumber men at university. There are also large-scale scientific studies showing that women score significantly higher than men on measures of emotional intelligence, empathy, humility, self-awareness, and coachability. A gender-blind, data-driven approach to selecting leaders in most fields would likely surface more women than men for these positions. When it comes to gender, the world is not currently a meritocracy. Asking women to be more confident is an effective decoy strategy to acknowledge this.