How working women are kept from positions of influence and power is by now well-documented by scientists and journalists alike. While the research has not been specifically remedy-directed, where gender-based bias has been discovered some have sought to counter it with HR policy changes, training, awareness campaigns, equal opportunity legislation, and more.
No small part of these countermeasures have been directed at women themselves. One especially pernicious message has been unchallenged for years: that female workers lack the self-confidence of their male peers and this hurts their chances at success. If they were less hesitant and sold themselves better, this logic goes, success would be theirs. Popular business writers thus advise women to “visualize success,” “take the stage,” “rewrite the rules,” and “think differently.” Famously, in 2013, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and a billionaire, published a book in which her advice for working women was to tell them to “lean in.” The following year, in The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know, authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman write, “Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in. Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. And the confidence gap is an additional lens through which to consider why it is women don’t lean in.”
Underlying all these messages is the belief that although the deck may be stacked against women as a group, individual women can break through the glass ceiling if they make certain choices: forego the trappings of femininity, learn the rules of the male-dominated working world, and assert themselves accordingly. In this framing, the aforementioned structural barriers are hurdles to be leaped over with proper mental training.
Yet, perhaps challenging common wisdom, recent research shows no evidence of a female modesty effect. In achievement-oriented domains, women rate themselves no lower than their male counterparts in leadership-related dimensions. Moreover, studies are finding no consistent gender differences in self-reported self-confidence. That is, women in today’s organizations seem to see themselves as capable as men of succeeding in their professional roles.
In research with Margarita Mayo of IE Business School and Natalia Karelaia of INSEAD, I took a different angle on the confidence factor and its relationship to organizational influence. Regardless of how confident a woman feels, we focused on what we termed self-confidence appearance — that is, the extent to which others perceive a woman as self-confident. Using multisource, time-lag data from a male-dominated technology company employing more than 4,000 people worldwide, we sought to determine how much the appearance of self-confidence increased the extent to which an employee gained influence within the company.
We found that even among similarly high-performing workers, appearing self-confident did not translate into influence equally for men and women. For women, but not for men, influence was closely tied to perceptions of warmth— how caring and prosocial they seemed. Moreover, women’s self-reported confidence did not correlate with how confident these women appeared to others.
While self-confidence is gender-neutral, the consequences of appearing self-confident are not. The “performance plus confidence equals power and influence” formula is gendered. Successful women cannot “lean in” on a structure that cannot support their weight without their opportunities (and the myth) collapsing around them.
Popular messaging about how women must change to appear more self-confident as a key to their success isn’t just false. It also reflects how the burden of managing a gender-diverse workplace is placed on the female employees themselves. Where their male colleagues are allowed to focus on their own objectives, women who are expected to care for others are shouldering an unfair load. This prosocial (double) standard does not appear in any job description but it is, indeed, the key performance indicator against which access, power, and influence will be granted to successful women. Men are held to a lower standard.
The takeaway is not, then, that women should forego developing the skills that build their confidence and bolster their performance. Instead, it is that organizational systems and practices should change so that women are rewarded equally. Companies can adopt processes, rules, and safety checks that ensure that all employees are being evaluated according to the same criteria. There are several actions that organizations can take for this purpose:
Make job requirements for success explicit. In particular, the HR department could systematically document the broad portfolio of skills (beyond technical expertise) required for success and disseminate such a list among all employees. If employee warmth is desired — as might be healthy for a collaborative organizational culture — it should be made an explicit benchmark in employee development, hiring, and evaluation for men as well as women. Moreover, in sectors where women are deeply underrepresented, the explicit expectation of prosocial skills can be helpful in both attracting female candidates and signaling their priority to existing personnel.
Monitor promotions and career advancement. The fallacy of meritocracy in male-dominated organizations is well-documented. Paying attention to implicit gender biases in promotion decisions is an important first step for organizations to develop more inclusive cultures. For example, often without making it explicit, performance appraisals contain nearly twice the amount of language about being nice and warm for women than for men. Our results imply that while self-confident men might pass the bar more easily, self-confident women will not unless they show a higher level of warmth. HR can monitor promotion decisions accordingly to avoid that talented women who do not conform to gender role prescriptions end up being penalized.
Highlight a wider array of role models. The stereotype of employees in male-dominated professions, such as computer science and engineering, is very narrow and relies on a common assumption: successful employees in these fields have poor interpersonal skills but that this is perfectly fine because only their technical ability matters for being successful. Successful high-tech celebrities are therefore perhaps not surprisingly often portrayed in the popular press as male, bright, dedicated, and often with a lack of interpersonal skills. Organizations can try to combat this is by elevating other role models, with a more varied range of skills and talents that can inspire a more diverse workforce.
Although no single study can provide a definitive understanding of gender biases at work, our results highlight the importance for organizations to monitor how high performing men and women are perceived — by their peers and especially by their supervisors — and how they progress in their careers. Only when organizations make active efforts to uncover gender biases and the processes that perpetuate them will they be able to become closer to the kinds of workplaces we believe in — where our talents and skills are rewarded fairly, regardless of gender.
Laura Guillen is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at ESMT Berlin.
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