Does confidence really advance women’s careers? New research says no

Does confidence really advance women’s careers? New research says no

‘Assert yourself and work on your confidence.’

If you’ve heard the above advice regarding your career, you’re probably a woman.

Women are told to work on their confidence all the time. To ‘lean in’; to ‘step up’; and to ‘make themselves known’

But can an increase in confidence really shift the game for women, and level a playing field that sees an estimated 150,000 more men than women being promoted each year?

That was the question Dr Leonora Risse from RMIT University wanted an answer to, after she was left exhausted by some of the advice being given to women on this matter.

She sought to determine whether confidence actually helped, by examining the nationally-representative workforce-wide data on 7500 working men and women, collected in the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey.

What the found was that while confidence can help men get ahead, it makes little difference to women.

And even for men, a ‘confident personality’ only appears to boost their chances of getting a job by 3.3%. Women, on the other hand, gained no percievable benefit.

By examining the confidence levels and promotion prospects of the working men and women in Australia who took part in the HILDA research, she found that men had a ‘higher hope of success’ on average, while women came up against a ‘higher fear of failure’.

That higher hope of success marginally lifted the job promotion prospects for men. But for women, such increases of hope had no effect on their opportunities.

The gender differences became much more significant at the higher end of the confidence scale, where men’s chances of promotion increased from 8 to 14% for highly confident men, but remained around the 7 to 8% mark for highly confident women.

Dr Risse believes the findings challenge the Sheryl Sandberg ‘lean in’ mantra that encourages women to be more assertive in the workplace.

She said the findings may indicate bias in how women are treated in the workplace, which was consistent with other research finding women can actually suffer backlash for demonstrating assertiveness, confidence and ambition at work.

“Confidence is a factor in success at work, and we see that, on average, women are less confident than men in putting themselves forward for a challenge,” Risse said.

“So it seems logical that, to achieve gender equality, we should encourage women to ‘lean in’ and develop the confidence to go for more challenging roles and job promotions,” she said.

“But our analysis shows it’s not that simple. Greater confidence does not translate into career gains, on the whole, for women.”

She hopes these findings will help encourage a shift away from encouraging women to be more like the stereotypical image of a ‘successful leader’, to instead focus on the gains that a workplace can achieve from including a wider range of worker personalities and attributes.

Dr Risse, who is also Chair of the Victorian Branch of the WEN, recently presented the findings at the Australian Gender Economics Workshop, which was co-hosted by the Women in Economics Network (WEN)


Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox