The Confidence Gap Isn’t to Blame for the Glass Ceiling

Last week, a colleague sent me a job opportunity that she thought I’d be interested in. Glancing over it, I saw it required, among other things, 10+ years experience in my industry, as well as a host of skills I didn’t possess.

“Thanks, I think it’s a bit out of my reach though!” I said.

“You know, men will apply for jobs where they only have 60% of the skill set,” they said. “You should go for it! Don’t limit yourself!” I couldn’t think of anything to say to that.

The conversation niggled me for days. I couldn’t put my finger on why I was irritated by it — I knew the advice was both well intended and actually pretty wise. As women, we have been raised to be deferential and humble, to know our place and to be happy with our lot. So shouldn’t isn’t it a good idea to bet on ourselves, strive and sell our skills?

This idea has been the topic of discussion recently with Katty Kay, producer at BBC World News, dubbing it the ‘confidence gap’ — where women routinely underestimate their professional worth whereas men — you guessed it — wildly overestimate it.

“The confidence gap is due to a noxious stew of perfectionism, risk aversion, fear of failure and over thinking.”

Katty Kay

According to Katty, this lack of confidence leads to fewer promotions, fewer opportunities and less pay for women. But the good thing about the confidence gap is that — unlike structural inequality, sexual harassment and the overarching weight of the patriarchy — this is something that we women can tackle all on our own.

There is a whole industry dedicated to improving women’s self esteem. Women are constantly told that they need to change to fit into business norms, to alter our personality and to ‘fake it till we make it’ to the ideal standard of confidence of our male counterparts.  Men on the other hand are given no such advice — they are the norm, after all.

“Ironically when looking for leaders, we look for the very qualities that would make someone ill-suited to the task.”

In a fantastic article in the Harvard Business Review, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic tackles the question, ‘Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?’ Although the article was written in 2013, it could not seem more prescient. In the last two years we’ve seen incompetently managed campaigns lead to the UK’s departure from the EU, the USA has a president in the White House who is utterly incapable of doing his job, and most recently, the innovative giant Uber has crumbled into a cesspool of harassment accusations and PR nightmares.

According to Chamorro-Premuzic, society is quick to mistake confidence for competence, turning to “self-centred, narcissistic, overconfident individuals as leaders”. Ironically when looking for leaders, we look for the very qualities that would make someone ill-suited to the task.

“In other words, what it takes to get the job is not just different from, but also the reverse of, what it takes to do the job well.”

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Emblematic of this is our fetishisation of narcissistic business titans: Bill Gates, Andy Grove, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg. It is no coincidence that they are all men. And this idolisation has real world effects. Recent research into the venture-capitalist community showed a disturbing gender bias: while men were described as ‘young, but promising’, ‘ arrogant, but talented’, women were described as ‘experienced, but worried’ and ‘too cautious and does not dare’. Men are automatically afforded trust, where women must still prove their worth and assert their place.

“Telling women to ‘be more confident’ will not challenge the patriarchal systems which took away their confidence in the first place.”

We’ve lived in a world with men at the helm for so long, we’re trained to recognise bluster, charisma and hubris as signs of being qualified. The problem comes when we advise women to work towards this same standard. Phoebe Luckhurst writing for The Pool  said that the confidence gap is “slowing us down. On a small, daily level, we are reticent to speak up in meetings; this crescendos, over time, into a fear of asking for promotions we are qualified for.”  True perhaps, but evidence shows that women are consistently interrupted, perceived to have spoken more in meetings than they actually have and are penalised when asking for promotions. The playing field isn’t level and we shouldn’t pretend that it is. Telling women to ‘be more confident’ will not challenge the patriarchal systems which took away their confidence in the first place.

So instead of pointing to women to solve the problem, as we always do, why don’t we approach men and get them to critically and realistically assess their business prowess? Instead of worrying about women’s confidence levels, should we be more concerned about men’s unfettered access to power and control? If we move away from the flawed, monolithic concept of a successful leader, we will open up the floor to more personalities, more women — who might actually get the job done.

I know that Katty Kay was not advising women to simply ‘act like men’; women should be encouraged to trust in their expertise and believe they have something to offer. But I’m exhausted and bored by the narrative which, when presented with evidence of structural inequality, says women are the ones who must change. We can ‘lean in’ until we fall over, remove every ‘just’ from every email, never apologise for anything again — but we won’t win until we stop aspiring to a harmful, patriarchal model of leadership and success.

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