Busting the myth that women are missing the extra confidence chromosome

This month I had the opportunity to again chair the Women in Leadership conference in Brisbane, showcasing some of Australia’s most successful and highly influential female and male leaders discussing the challenges and opportunities for women in the workplace today.

On Day 2, Richard Wankmuller delivered the keynote on Cardno’s progress in gender inequity, stating that Cardno considers gender inequity to be a leadership issue; not a women’s issue. Cardno is actively strategizing to adopt a diverse work force, and exploring ways to pro-actively expand development opportunities available to both men and women.

The keynote was followed by an all-male panel - senior men in leadership roles - with views on why senior women do not progress through organisations. We heard that women take too long to get to the point when speaking, women apologise too much, women say ‘sorry’ too much or ‘just’ too much. We also heard that women are not confident enough, and women hold themselves back; applying for promotions only when they are confident they have met 100 percent of the qualifications. Many women in the audience nodded their heads in recognition. Max Roberts, General Manager SAP, was the only outlier - voicing that leadership is irrespective of gender - great leaders have attributes that are not tied to one gender.

Biases will be perpetuated unless they’re intentionally interrupted. Simplistic solutions on ‘fixing the women’ to solve gender inequity denies the structural, cultural, interpersonal and personal barriers in the workplace. It assumes that if only women would fix themselves, the barriers to leadership would dissolve.

Bias interrupters focus on collecting detailed data about whether gender bias plays a role in workplace interactions; identifying specific ways to measure its effect; and creating strategy about what “interrupters” might move biases and barriers in the workplace.

BIAS INTERRUPTER- There is no empirical evidence that shows that women use ‘sorry’ or ‘just’ language more than men.

Articles abound instructing women to stop using supposedly destructive speech patterns, from stop saying "sorry" to stop saying "just" too much. Robin Lakoff, language and gender expert, states there’s no empirical proof this is the case. The issue is that we listen much more closely to what women say, and are consequently far more critical. A 2010 study from University of Waterloo states that despite wide acceptance of the stereotype that women apologise more than men, there is little systematic evidence to support this stereotype.

BIAS INTERRUPTER- There is no empirical evidence that shows that research that women apply only when they are confident they have met 100 percent, whereas men apply when they think they can meet 60 percent.

There is a tsunami of literature on women’s lack of confidence playing a significant role in women not applying for jobs, promotion or pay negotiations which align with the all-male panel’s views. Quoted in Sandberg’s Lean In, The Confidence Gap, McKinsey Quarterly, and many other sources is the Hewlett Packard research that women apply for promotions only when they are confident they have met 100 percent of the qualifications, whereas men apply when they think they can meet 60 percent of the job requirements. The research does not exist

BIAS INTERRUPTER- There is no empirical evidence that shows that women are not as confident as men.

There are both overconfident and unconfident men and women in the workplace. Confidence is a concept that is not gendered. Men do not get the extra confidence chromosome at birth while women miss out. Confidence is altered by organisational culture.

McKinsey found that women are confident about their own abilities to become top managers, but much less confident that their company cultures will support them. McKinsey found that an organisation’s culture is more than twice as likely to impact women reaching leadership roles. Bain and Company reported that 43% of women are confident that they can reach top management positions at the outset of their careers contrasted with only 34% of men sharing that same goal. Two years into the job, women’s confidence in their careers goals plummet to 16% while men stay steady at 34%. The main reason why women’s confidence and career ambition drop off a cliff? Women don’t feel supported by management and they have a hard time fitting into stereotypes of success within the company.

BIAS INTERRUPTER- Women are twice as likely to believe that men are more confident; creating a virtuous circle of self-doubt for women reconfirmed by bias in the workplace.

Addressing structural, cultural, interpersonal and personal barriers in workplaces is critical to moving the status quo. Stereotypes and assumptions (unconscious bias) need to be called out in the workplace. Whenever you hear “women are like this, or men are like that” call it out. Ask for empirical evidence when you hear stereotypes.

Instead of questioning women’s confidence, maybe the question we should all be asking is where is the men’s confidence? Why aren’t men in our organisations confident enough to speak up about gender inequity? Why aren’t our male leaders committing to strategic initiatives to examine structural, cultural, interpersonal and personal barriers in the workplaces?


This article was first published on Mitchell Services blog

Leith Mitchell

Leith Mitchell is the diversity consulting Director of Mitchell Services and a passionate champion of diversity, flexible working and mindfulness.

Twitter: @leith_mitchell 

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Website: mitchellservices.net.au/
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