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Gap or trap? Confidence backlash is the real problem for women

Women continue to earn substantially less than men and occupy a comparatively smaller proportion of upper management positions. A new book, The Confidence Code, largely attributes this to women’s lower…

Current claims that women hold themselves back through under-confidence aren’t really borne out in research. Image sourced from www.shutterstock.com

Women continue to earn substantially less than men and occupy a comparatively smaller proportion of upper management positions. A new book, The Confidence Code, largely attributes this to women’s lower confidence when compared to men. The book, by two US television broadcasters Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, suggests that women are less likely to self-promote - highlight accomplishments, skills and strengths, and take credit for achievements, and that this lessens their success in recruitment and promotion.

Both claim lower confidence explains this tendency to avoid self-promotion and accounts for women’s reluctance to put themselves forward for senior positions, to negotiate less and for lower rewards, and to underestimate their skills and knowledge. Their claims, which they say are backed by science, have been featured on the front cover of May’s The Atlantic (which also published the highly 2012 controversial piece ‘Why women can’t have it all’, by Anne-Marie Slaughter).

However, while there is significant evidence that women are less likely to negotiate assertively for advancement or additional rewards, it is not altogether clear that a lack of confidence accounts for these patterns.

Indeed, there is evidence that women do not have lower confidence levels than men. Young women at work are more likely to see themselves as at least equal to men, with stronger communication skills and resilience. In a recent FleishmanHillard and Hearst Magazines study, only 54% of men compared to 70% of Generation Y women described themselves as smart.

Research on gender stereotypes provides a powerful alternative explanation for women’s lack of self-promotion. Gender stereotypes are mental models containing our knowledge, beliefs, and expectancies about women and men and they are a determining factor in what we accept and value in terms of behaviour, attitudes, and appearance. In most western societies, the stereotypical view of women is more communal, caring and interdependent than men, who are viewed as more agentic, ambitious and independent.

These stereotypes pose a significant barrier for women who want to highlight their accomplishments or advocate more assertively for rewards and recognition. Indeed, any type of self-promotion presents a dilemma for women. While advocating achievements represents a positive challenge to the stereotypical view that they are less agentic and competent than men, it is also likely to trigger a backlash effect — significant social and economic penalties that result from counter-stereotypic behaviour.

Studies suggest that women who engage in self-promoting behaviour are perceived as more dominant and arrogant than men displaying the same behaviour. They are judged as pushy, less likeable and less collegial than similar male peers. While their self-promotion leads others to perceive women as competent, they are less likely to be recruited or promoted due their counter-stereotypical behaviour. Professional women appear to be caught in a catch-22: to overcome traditional negative stereotypes they are encouraged to adopt more agentic behaviours, yet if they choose to do so, they are very likely to be penalised for violating the expected behaviours for women.

To reinforce the dysfunctional nature of stereotyping, there is surprising evidence that women can be successful when acting assertively in workplace negotiations – but only when they are negotiating on behalf of someone else. While men achieve a higher salary than women when negotiating for themselves, there are no gender differences when men and women are negotiating on behalf of their colleagues. Negotiating on behalf of a colleague fits with the female stereotype of being helpful and supportive and in this situation gender differences in negotiation disappear.

This represents a double standard that impedes women’s career progression. Highlighting strengths and achievements is necessary in salary negotiations, recruitment and promotion endeavours, however women risk significant penalties for this type of behaviour.

It is not surprising that women are aware of the risk of backlash and they strive to avoid it by keeping within gender bounds. As a result, women’s fear of being pushy and arrogant means that they are less likely to pursue promotion, less likely to draw attention to their accomplishments and strengths, and less likely to negotiate assertively.

This is not to say that women do not need confidence to succeed at work – they do, as do men. However, a lack of confidence may not best explain women’s decisions around self-promotion. Avoiding backlash appears to be an explanation with at least as much evidence in its support. And it seems likely that women’s avoidance of backlash is likely to precipitate reluctance to express confidence at least until it is incorporated into our view of a functioning female stereotype.

There is some tentative good news, however. As the proportion of women increases in upper management, the tendency for backlash against women’s assertiveness and self-promotion weakens. Typically, when at least 15% of a leadership team are women, there is less likely to be a perception that assertive women leaders are acting counter-stereotypically. As women continue to increase their presence in upper management, the perception that self-promoting and assertive behaviour is not “fitting” for women is likely to decrease.

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  1. Craig Myatt

    Industrial Designer / R&D

    If you wish to see a "double standard", look at the promotion of the acceptance of quotas to promote women in management positions...

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    1. Sandy Scuffard

      Motor mechanic

      In reply to Craig Myatt

      Absolutely Craig. There never seems to be an issue with there being less than 50% of men in fields of work like nursing or teaching. NO quotas needed there.
      And there never seems to be an issue of less than 50% female participation in jobs that are dirty, dangerous, etc like collecting rubbish, digging ditches, the military. No quotas needed there.
      But when it's a highly-paid elite job up for grabs, it's time that we empowered women by way of a quota.
      And, oh yes, feminism is all about equality. What's not to like about that?

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  2. Janeen Harris

    chef

    Are we mistaking a lack of confidence and reluctance to self promote , when it may be a lack of arrogance and a lack of desire to compete in a dog eat dog environment.

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Janeen Harris

      I tend to agree Janeen.

      Perhaps women see a real negative in the way men behave in the business world.

      Looking at "business", there are too many examples of avarice, corruption, arrogance, and so on.

      That's not to say women cannot have these negative qualities too, but to me it's the males who act like peacocks and lyrebirds - and roosters.

      There's an old saying - "lie down with dogs - get up with fleas".

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    2. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to Janeen Harris

      I agree, Janeen, too much arrogance (or 'blowing your own trumpet') tends to screen out the needs of others from perception.
      Overall, I think most women are aware of the needs of their fellow humans at all/most times rather than perceive themselves as apart or superior. It may be a male/hormonal tendency because I see this behaviour from time to time in my boys, but much less so in girls of the same ages (though there are exceptions in both groups).
      Nevertheless, at our level of cognisance this difference should be openly acknowledged, celebrated and the benefits of both or either attitude taken into consideration to bring balance to all human undertakings by including both temperaments equally. If we really aim for a peaceful world, this is essential. But I'm not sure if those in power in industry and government across the globe (mostly men still) use peace only as rhetoric because they can only continue to be arrogant or superior while climbing over others needs and corpses...

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    3. Janeen Harris

      chef

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      Religion is also a stumbling block. It teaches that god is a man and women were created to serve man. As long as this is accepted women will be taken for granted, ignored or denigrated. How do you defeat a false god?

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  3. Gillian Lewis

    logged in via Facebook

    Thank you for your article Rebecca, I did find it interesting, however there is a whole area of well researched 'problems for women' not addressed here which I believe is a major influence on women in the workplace and that is the culture of our society and the workplace culture. Elizabeth Broderick and her Champions of Change - number of leading businessmen - recognise this.

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    1. Rebecca Mitchell

      Associate Professor, Faculty of Business and Law at University of Newcastle

      In reply to Gillian Lewis

      I agree that the piece focuses on stereotyping as one aspect of women's experience at work and I hope that there will be more articles covering a range of workplace research relevant to this topic. I think that national and organisational culture are very intertwined with gender stereotypes.

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  4. Sean Welsh

    Doctoral Candidate in Robot Ethics at University of Canterbury

    Besides confidence, I think there are questions of motive and options. Women are less inclined to make risky plays generally. Men are more likely to take risks. Some will lose and some will win. The higher up the food chain the bigger the risks and the more spectacular the crashes. Women are perhaps less motivated to gamble. Crash averse if you will. More cautious. More sensible. Those with children have a life outside of work that is meaningful, important and rewarding (just not financially). Children…

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    1. Kerryn Herman

      Wildlife Ecologist

      In reply to Sean Welsh

      I think that you have listed a whole range of stereotypes in your argument that nicely support the above article. Women are less inclined to be risky and are more cautious and sensible... are we? Or are these behaviours we are constantly taught as it is what makes us "female"?

      Those women with children have a life outside work which is more meaningful, important and rewarding? I would hope that this would be the same for men, and if, as you say the househusband is not an option for men... why…

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    2. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Kerryn Herman

      Yes, women ARE less inclined to take risks. No, it's not just acculturation, it's evolution.

      Yes, some women can be the dominant financial partner in a relationship and in most couples the female is the one who has the control of finances/resources whichever partner brings home the bacon. Once again, evolution in action. In the case of every couple I know where both partners work, the man's wage is "theirs" and the woman's wage is "hers". In some cases this goes to the extreme of her having a separate…

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    3. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to account deleted

      An ad on TV which annoys me intensely is the one where a guy brings his red speedos to basketball training instead of his shorts.

      Cut to the court and the guy (in his speedos) has the ball and running towards the hoop. The voiceover says "there's an offensive foul if ever I saw one".

      Imagine if that was a woman in her undies.

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  5. Anne Powles

    Retired Psychologist

    How about work encouraging some different self promotion techniques in men too? It would be significantly better for most work places if brashness and a more co-operative approach to implementations of decisions were to be required from both genders equally. It would not be an advantages if women just mimicked men's style. It probably would be, however, if promotional ideals and management styles became more an amalgam of those currently expected from men and those currently expected from women.

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    1. Rebecca Mitchell

      Associate Professor, Faculty of Business and Law at University of Newcastle

      In reply to Anne Powles

      I did read some research lately that suggested that people who were able to use both communal and agentic styles, so were able to be both cooperative and assertive, were often perceived as effective leaders. From memory this applied more to women than men.

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    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Anne Powles

      Too true Anne.

      How about leaning on men to change their style, rather have women adapt to the male style.

      Of course men will see that as being cast as the lambs of Wall St rather than the wolves, but it might be a nice change.

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    3. David Parish

      Educator

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Stephen
      You have echoed my thoughts. Thanks. Meant I didn't have to prepare a comment.

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    4. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to David Parish

      Men have been "leant" on for the past 50 or so years and the social consequences have been far from good.

      How about a bit of recognition for the good things that men do, instead of the constant carping and whining? How about a bit of apology to the young men who have been allowed to wither on the educational vine while the educators preference their female peers - less then 30% of young men will attend tertiary study, while over 40% of young women will do so? How about some attempt at balance in the whol;e discussion around gender, instead of the usual huffy dramatics from a certain type of woman whenever a "mere man" has the temerity to suggest she isn't entitled to have life handed to her on a platter?

      Nah, let's just "lean on men"; if they can't take it they're just sooks.

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  6. Richard Armstrong

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Quite frankly I believe that it is not that women are being paid less than they are worth, but that the men in high positions are being paid far more than they are worth. Women as a whole are far more realistic and aware of what is a fair wage for what they do.and also are far more realistic in recognizing the worth of job satisfaction

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Richard Armstrong

      Doesn't stop Gail Kelly from taking home $10 million a year, plus a bonus or two I imagine.

      I think your argument more addresses a symptom rather than a "
      cure".

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    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      And that makes me question -

      do we see GK getting the big bikkies, and say good on her for being up there with the big boys,
      or lambast her for being avaricious and part of the problem of wealth inequality.

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    3. Rebecca Mitchell

      Associate Professor, Faculty of Business and Law at University of Newcastle

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Perhaps we do both. From a gender perspective I think its good news to see another successful woman - it only takes 15% in upper management to start changing stereotypes. But that doesnt mean that we need to agree with either men or women getting paid disproportionately.

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  7. Chris Pearce

    logged in via Facebook

    After being on both sides of the interviewing table a number of times, I think the main determinant in getting ahead in the workforce is looking, sounding and acting the part. I’ve said a few times that if I spoke to a group of people in the workplace for a few minutes about some non-work related issue and then spoke to each one individually for a minute or two, I think I could figure out who was in charge in most cases. Maybe confidence comes into it sometimes and extrovert versus introvert, but…

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    1. Rebecca Mitchell

      Associate Professor, Faculty of Business and Law at University of Newcastle

      In reply to Chris Pearce

      I think that this is an interesting perspective, especially the idea that men are allowed more freedom to act against stereotype than women.

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  8. Edwina Laginestra
    Edwina Laginestra is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Jack of all trades

    I know it is easier to explain things using gross generalisations, but there are an awful lot of gross generalisations here. It would be wonderful if we could see the person first, then use only gender as a descriptor - like hair colour, eyes, height....but we are always going to have outliers like Gayle Kelly. We also have a few men that are successful despite being a "little effeminate". I know this doesn't happen, too many people saw me as female first rather than a good manager. It is the same…

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  9. Craig Myatt

    Industrial Designer / R&D

    This idea about counter stereotypical behavior being at odds with suggestions to women about how to compete in male dominated workplaces does sound a bit like any other myriad complexities of groups in workplaces. Certainly see the application for women, but this applies to men too. What is acknowledged of good leaders women or men is their ability to set a hIgh example, and not be persuaded to meet the "status quo", something I think any individual finds challenging.

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    1. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Craig Myatt

      It's not about groups in workplaces per se as I see it, but about mixed gender groups generally. Look at clubs and associations where men and women mix socially and incidentally do some collective task. There is always some form of genderised sorting. Women are very often (almost always) the ones instigating it; shooing the men off while they get on with whatever it is they feel is their own role. This isn't a matter of sexism, as such, just a normal way that human beings interact. I've seen the…

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    2. Craig Myatt

      Industrial Designer / R&D

      In reply to account deleted

      "trivialisation...." I think is a response to the way women feel about their recent history...that is not per se an argument I think they would expect you to focus on... I think you are right to draw analogies between the way women act which tends to legitimise an expectation women would be in particular "roles", (ie: they gravitate to and emphasise some roles) but I was pointing to a time when perhaps this "gender" demarcation of "areas of activity" will be less of a point of concern, and more…

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    3. account deleted

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Craig Myatt

      Males and females are not essentially similar, they are complementary. There are overlaps in both motivation and capacity, but the median male is quite different to the median female. Gender is not a surface manifestation like skin colour, it is a basic characteristic that defines everything from physical strength to the sorts of diseases we are prone to (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_genetic_disorders) and the way we interact both within and between genders.

      The simplistic pseudo-Marxian…

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  10. Chris Saunders

    retired

    Any job application requires that you have the relevant experience, qualities, education and knowledge, and then something a little extra. That gets you an interview. Then there are abstract measures as to whether an employee is achieving to expected level, below that or over that. All of which can be gauged at interview and via references. And if your present workplace wants to get rid of you, it is not unknown for them to give you a glowing reference, or if they are out for revenge a nasty…

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