A Lack of Confidence Isn't What’s Holding Back Working Women

Women are hesitant to talk up their accomplishments because they are often penalized when they do.

This much we know: There’s a wide and stubborn gender gap, both in terms of pay and leadership opportunities. What we still can’t figure out are the causes. Some argue that inflexible workplaces are to blame. Others point to sexist cultural norms and even outright discrimination.

While the truth is probably a combination of all these factors, and more, another theory has gained ground in recent years. Sometimes referred to as the “confidence gap,” the theory holds that women feel less confident than men in their own abilities, and in a corporate world that rewards horn tooters more than the humble, women’s tendency to avoid promoting themselves and their accomplishments means they’re passed over for big projects, leadership roles, and pay raises. The solution, women are told, is simple: Go forth with the confidence of a man, and that corner office will be yours. If sales of books like Lean In and The Confidence Code are any indication, many women have swallowed this interpretation hook, line, and sinker.

There’s just one problem: There’s a strong body of research suggesting that women feel just as confident in their abilities and leadership skills as their male peers. The confidence gap seems to be a classic case of mistaking the symptom—women’s apparent inability to promote themselves—for the cause. “Women do seem to toot their horns less than their male colleagues,” says Hannah Riley Bowles, a senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School who studies women’s leadership. “The problem is when you stop there and say, ‘Okay, well, women just need to be more like men.’ The story of why women are more modest than men is much more complicated than that.”

Together, two new pieces of research are helping identify why it’s so hard for women to boast about their accomplishments. The first study, conducted by researchers at three European business schools, confirms what many working women instinctively know: While they might be told confidence is the key to professional success, that’s rarely the case in practice. Unless women can temper their assertiveness with more stereotypically feminine traits like empathy and altruism, confidence will do little to advance their careers.

Analyzing data from an unnamed global-technology company, the researchers found that the appearance of self-confidence was not equally rewarded for men and women. “The more confident male engineers in our sample appeared to be, the more influence they had in the organization,” the researchers concluded. “Women were able to translate their self-confident image into influence only when they also displayed high prosocial orientation, or the motivation to benefit others.”

While all that most men seem to need in order to succeed in the workplace is a little bit of spunk, women must learn how to master the art of appearing bothsure of themselves and modest. Too much of the latter, and women’s achievements get overlooked. Too much of the former, and they can face what experts refer to as the “backlash effect”—social and professional sanctions for failing to conform to gender norms. For example, confident women are often perceived as less likable and hireable.

According to another recent study, it’s most often a fear of this backlash, and not a lack of confidence, that prevents many women from self-promoting. Researchers at Northern Illinois University had a group of female students write scholarship application essays explaining why their skills and achievements made them the most deserving recipient. Some women were told the essay would be anonymous while others were told their name would be included. When the exercise was over, the participants were asked to say how well they’d performed. The anonymous essayists, who didn’t have to worry about a backlash, rated their achievements higher than those who were told their name would be included. For Meghan I. H. Lindeman, one of the researchers who conducted the study, the implications are clear: Without any changes to women’s fear of backlash, “they are unlikely to successfully self-promote, no matter how confident they feel,” she says.

As with most misdiagnoses, the prescribed treatments for women’s supposed lack of confidence—practicing power posesbanishing vocal habits like “upspeak,” eliminating negative thoughts—don’t seem to have had any impact. In fact, some experts think that the fearmongering about the confidence gap might perversely have otherwise self-assured women internalizing the idea that they’re lacking in confidence. “I’m starting to wonder if we could be creating the phenomenon that we’re supposed to be studying,” says Riley Bowles, the Harvard professor.  

Ultimately, the biggest problem with the confidence-gap theory is that it places the responsibility for closing the gender gap on individual women when the solution might instead lie beyond their control. “The focus on the confidence gap is troubling as it suggests something is wrong with women, and that we need to ‘fix’ them and have them act more like men,” says Jessi L. Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “This misplaces the responsibility and the burden.” Smith, who has studiedgender norms in the workplace, says that the strategies that make the biggest difference in women’s lack of self-promotion put the onus on companies, not the women who work in them. One simple tactic is for workplaces to normalize the practice of self-promotion, so that when women talk about their achievements, they are less likely to face the well-documented backlash. “Start each meeting by asking everyone to share one thing they’ve achieved since you last met,” Smith recommends. “It could be big or small; it might be work related or personal. The idea is that everyone gets a turn, and that everyone gets to define what counts as an accomplishment.”

Companies should also hold workshops that highlight for employees the research on the backlash that confident women often experience in the workplace, Smith adds. Not only would these trainings make people more aware of their deeply ingrained but often implicit gender biases, but they would also help otherwise-confident women understand why they might feel uncomfortable self-promoting.

Women can also take matters into their own hands, for example by trying to frame their achievements in communal terms. “You don’t want to overdo the ‘we’ so that you disappear entirely, but you do want to make it clear that the work you do and the ideas you have are good for the company,” says Riley Bowles. She also recommended that women track and verbalize their contributions at work, especially when working as part of a mixed-gender group. “People are more likely to rely on their preconceived notions and stereotypes in ambiguous situations,” Riley Bowles said. “The less transparency there is about the actual contributions a woman made, the more potential there is to discount her work.”

Normalizing that kind of transparency in the workplace, with specific policies and collective structural changes, would do far more to help women get their work recognized than any pep talks aimed at boosting their personal confidence.