The “gender confidence gap” is something that’s been spoken and written about increasingly in recent years: studies have repeatedly found that women are riddled with self-doubt, which can hinder their career prospects and financial remuneration.
This perceived lack of confidence even exists when there is factual evidence that women are intellectually equal – or even superior to – men: a recent study in the journal Physiology found that when female university students have equal grades to their male counterparts, they still feel they are inferior and less intelligent.
This problem of self-perception can lead to all sorts of negative consequences, from women waiting longer to ask for a promotion to feeling reluctant about pursuing careers in certain fields. Recent studies have also sought to dispel the myth that women don’t ask for pay rises; in fact, they do now ask, they just don’t get. Could the “gender confidence gap” have something to do with this?
If you’re wondering how men fare in all of this, research indicates they have the opposite issue, tending to overestimate their abilities and their performance. Time and time again, leaders in organisations are selected not for their skills but because of their overconfidence – and, unsurprisingly, it’s often men who have these self-aggrandising beliefs.
A lack of confidence among the female population can have repercussions across a variety of areas, from the still-widening gender pay gap to the frustratingly slow ascension of female leaders across all spheres.
According to the Office of National Statistics, the proportion of mothers in employment has risen to a record level (74% of mothers in England were working in 2018, compared with 68.9% five years ago), but many are still battling overtly (and more subtle) hostile work environments, discrimination and flexible working challenges as they try to negotiate their careers with their changing personal lives.
All of this is to say that women have myriad barriers getting in the way of their professional success – before you’ve even factored in their own beliefs that they might be “less than” or that they can’t achieve more.
This is happening across the board, to women in all walks of life. Even women at the top of the intellectual game – female academics – suffer above-average levels of self-doubt, according to new research.
This confidence gap has another name: “imposter syndrome” – something even Michelle Obama has admitted she suffers from.
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“I still have a little [bit of] imposter syndrome, it never goes away, that you’re actually listening to me,” she said.
“It doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously. What do I know? I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is.”
Here are some of the ways we can help combat the “gender confidence gap” and “imposter syndrome” we’re all at risk of suffering from.
Encourage confidence from a young age
Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of The Confidence Code for Girls, have found that girls’ confidence drops dramatically as they enter their teen years – 30% between the ages of 8 and 14. Earlier than that, girls start to develop limiting self-beliefs as young as age 5, which can impact the kinds of subjects they want to study and careers they feel they can pursue because they’re already conditioned to think they’re not smart or capable enough.
Encouraging girls to take risks and try something new and teaching them how not to dwell on failure can help all girls feel more confident. The authors of The Confidence Code for Girls recommend distraction techniques, like having girls walk the dog or read a book, to help combat anxiety and take their mind off feeling they’re not good enough. Parents should also act as role models who are able to showcase their own efforts, struggles, failures and successes. Parents can work to negate social and cultural stereotypes in the home, introducing trailblazing role models from a young age through books and real-life mentors.
READ MORE: Here’s how to find a mentor for your kids
Ditch the perfectionist streak
Perfectionism is on the rise, and women are often incredibly self-critical and saddled with society’s unrealistic expectations that they can, and should, do it all. Trying to be perfect won’t build confidence; it will only set women up for failure (we all know perfection is unachievable and totally subjective). Unfortunately, women don’t respond well to failure, either, often interpreting it as a sign of their own lack of ability, rather than something that is inevitable and can be a positive learning opportunity for the future.
Toot your own horn
According to research, even when women are confident and comfortable in their own abilities, they’re hesitant to shout their achievements from the rooftops because they want to avoid the “backlash effect” – the social consequences of appearing to self-promote, which make women seem less likeable in the eyes of others. We need to stop worrying about people pleasing and embrace self-compassion and self-care, learning to be nicer to ourselves. It’s also helpful for women to learn to focus on what they did right, instead of any mistakes they may have made along the way.
Cultivate mentors and sponsors
Time and time again, successful female leaders talk of the support they received from mentors in their fields and how that gave them the confidence to keep moving forward. Even more critically, sponsors who are willing to take a risk on a woman’s behalf or suggest a particular woman for a new project or promotion can alter a career path dramatically. There’s also a lot to be said for taking a risk, when it comes to asking someone you admire to help guide you professionally or even just the risk of applying for a new role, something women are hesitant to do unless they meet 100% of the criteria (men will apply when they only meet 60% of the qualifications, according to a Hewlett Packard report).
Let’s give our girls the confidence to believe that they can be anything – so that they will grow up to be women who do just that.