How women can overcome the ‘confidence gap’

How women can overcome the ‘confidence gap’

It’s the 21st-century and still there are fewer Australian women in leadership roles than men: research shows women continue to earn less than men and are still less likely to put themselves forward for a promotion.

The ‘confidence gap’ is often cited as the cause for discrepancy. First coined by Peggy Orenstein in 1994 and popularised by Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In (2013) and Claire Shipman and Kitty Hay published The Confidence Code (2014),

The ‘confidence gap’ theory asserts it’s women’s lack of confidence that’s holding them back.

La Trobe University’s Professor of Finance Amalia Di Iorio, however, says this argument doesn’t delve deep enough.

‘Often we hear in the media that women are less confident and therefore don’t put themselves forward for promotion and don’t negotiate [salary]. But the media and books that are written about this fall short. They don’t give us any direction on how to improve things.’

First thing’s first: why is this a women’s-only issue?

‘It probably affects men too – some men, not all ,’ says Dr. Di Iorio. ‘[But] it’s so well documented that women under-sell themselves and many don’t believe they’re capable to the same degree that men do.’

The reason it generally affects women more than men could have to do with socialisation. ‘It could be that girls are treated different to boys as they grow up.’

Also, ‘if you had a strong role model who said “yes, of course you can do it” that’s really positive,’ says Dr. Di Iorio, but ‘if you had role models that tried to bring you down, that has a big impact on the way you develop as well.’

‘In the workplace, do we treat men differently to women? Are the same opportunities available to women as they are to men? We still have a huge wage gap in our society partly because we don’t talk about salaries. We don’t know what other people make. It’s not something that’s transparent.’

‘If you think about meetings, for example. If a woman has something to say in a meeting, often the language is different, but also they can be seen as harsh or critical if they disagree. It’s like ‘oh god, here she goes again’. In the same situation, a man would more likely be considered as being constructive.’

Di Iorio’s comments reflect Sandberg’s in her 2010 TedX talk: ‘Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.’

Okay, so if confidence is holding women back, what can we do about it?

Di Iorio says confidence is a very broad concept and we should shift the conversation, instead, to ‘self-efficacy’.

‘You can be supremely confident you’re going to fail at something. Whereas “self-efficacy” is around your capabilities and believing you’re able to be successful and achieve your objectives.’

Di Iorio draws on the example that self-efficacy is often seen as a key to success in sport. ‘Research has actually shown that the most important difference between elite athletes and those that are less successful is that elite athletes have greater self-belief – greater self-efficacy.’

How do we develop self-efficacy?

‘Believe you are capable of achieving a goal you have set’ is one of those pieces of advice that’s easier said than done. Di Iorio offers four tangible ways to develop self-efficacy.

‘Research shows self-efficacy can be developed and increased in various ways, such as performance achievements. So, success breeds success. If you put yourself or others in situations where they’re going to succeed – that develops self-efficacy.’

Role modelling, positive and constructive feedback, and mentoring are other ways we can develop self-efficacy.

Di Iorio adds, ‘Having self-efficacy doesn’t mean you don’t have to do any work. You’ve got to do the work to be successful, but you shouldn’t be scared of doing it. You should have the belief in yourself you can do what you set out to do, and if you fail you just have another go.

‘We all fail and people – even guys – get told “no”. I’ve been told “no” but then my reaction to that is “well, okay then tell me what’s required to achieve my goal”’.

It sounds very logical, says Di Iorio, who has chaired panel discussions on this topic around Victoria over the past few years. ‘But, it’s about bringing this concept to the conscience of people so that women can begin to see themselves and the women around them differently.’

On being community leaders, and helping others

Self-efficacy isn’t just for women wanting to scale the corporate ladder. ‘It’s not just about professional women,’ says Di Iorio. ‘It’s about women – whether they stay at home or whether they work – who have situations in their lives where they have to do things where they might be uncomfortable.’

‘And,’ she adds, ‘it’s also about being a community leader. It’s about looking around at who works for you and giving them opportunities to develop self-efficacy.’

As managers and leaders, ‘let’s put [women] in charge or let’s give them activities where they will succeed.’

‘Let’s give them constructive feedback and give them strong role models. We need to build work environments that give women the opportunity to believe in themselves.’

Professor Di Iorio will lead a ‘Women in Leadership Forum’ on the confidence gap on Thursday 26 May at The Cube, Albury-Wodonga.


Read our other posts on Women and Leadership: