Is higher confidence the key to closing gender gaps?

by Dr Leonora Risse



“Be more confident, assertive, and ambitious...Be more like a man.”


It’s well-meaning advice that is meant to help empower, motivate and propel women up the next rung of the career ladder. To break through the self-doubt, hesitation and deficit of confidence that is apparently misting up our glass ceilings.


Many companies invest heavily in confidence and assertiveness training for women as a means of closing gender gaps in workforce outcomes. But does this advice to women to “be more confident” actually deliver the payoffs it promises?


As a recipient of this advice throughout all of my studies and career, and as an economist trained in evidence-based policy, I was keen to dig deeper and find out.


How I investigated this question

The Household, Income, and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey provides a rich collection of characteristics of Australia’s adult population. In addition to workforce and demographic characteristics, the HILDA Survey intermittently collects data on psychological variables such as personality traits.


In 2013, the survey included a psychological measure called ‘Achievement Motivation’ which captures a person’s readiness to put themselves forward for a challenging situation, as well as the extent to which they might hold themselves back due to apprehension about failing. The psychology literature describes these two dimensions as ‘hope for success’ and ‘fear of failure’.


This is basically a measure of the very characteristics that the “lean in and be more confident” advice is aiming to unlock and spur on in women.


Using econometric analysis, I investigated whether this measure of confidence is linked to a person’s likelihood of experiencing a job promotion in the following year. A range of other variables was included to control for other factors that could also influence promotion outcomes, such as industry and experience. The final analysis is based on a sample of around 8000 respondents across the workforce.


So, is there a link between confidence and job promotion prospects?

Yes, I detected that higher confidence is linked to stronger job promotion prospects – but with a catch.


This positive correlation between confidence and job promotion is only detected among men. For men who are at the highest level of confidence on this scale, their probability of experiencing a job promotion doubles from 8% to 14%. However, it doesn’t matter how confident a woman is, it does not translate into higher promotion chances.


In other words, there is no evidence here that “leaning in” is guaranteed to work for women.

When I explore other personality traits, I also detect that a person’s job promotion prospects are enhanced if they also demonstrate a high level of extraversion, openness to new experiences, and internal locus of control – characteristics associated with social networking, entrepreneurialism, and ambition. But again, these positive link is only apparent among men.


These findings paint a template of who is deemed competent, promotable, and of leadership material. It’s a template of traits defined in male terms


Gender biases can also work against men

When I narrow down the sample to look specifically at managers, the probability of job promotion is found to be negatively linked to fear or failure. That is, managers are penalised for exhibiting emotional fragility. But gender norms are also at play here: male managers experience a larger penalty than female managers. Any emotion associated with weakness is especially shunned if you are a male in leadership. It’s a finding that’s at odds with fresh insights that point towards the value of humility, authenticity and vulnerability as hallmarks of effective leadership.


Is there any harm with the ‘lean in’ advice?

There are several dangers with attempting to close gender gaps by encouraging women to adopt the characteristics that typical “successful men” hold. The repercussions extend beyond inequitable opportunities for women. The findings also throw doubt on whether the most competent person is being promoted in the first place.


1) Relying on confidence as a proxy for competency can lead to poor appointments for an organisation. Existing research shows that overconfident workers can be more of a liability, than an asset, particularly when it comes to financial investment decisions. Ensuring that appointment decisions are based on objective criteria and skills-based assessments – rather than be swayed by personal traits of charisma and confidence – is as essential for equity as well as organisational outcomes.


2) Placing the onus on women to correct their apparent flaws and deficiencies diverts attention away fixing the biases in the system. The deficit approach also dismisses and diminishes the value of the diversity and the broader spectrum of attributes, insights and life experiences that women – and other marginalised and under-represented groups – bring to an organisation. Women, for example, tend to exhibit higher levels of agreeableness, which is an asset for alliance building and collaboration.


3) Perpetuating the notion that women are deficit in capability – without simultaneously recognising the ways that societal structures deprive women of opportunities to build their capabilities and connections in the same way as men – perpetuates the notion that our current system is meritocratic. This illusion of meritocracy serves to fortify gender blindspots and the belief that “there’s nothing wrong with our current system” among men too.


These findings are not to suggest that initiatives to support women in ways such as mentoring, exposure to role models, and capability building, are not valuable investments for women. Given that these professional opportunities and networks are much more readily available to men, these types of initiatives contribute towards tackling inequities in the system.


At the same time, we are investing in women, we can’t lose sight of the need to invest in dismantling the biases, stereotypes, and inequality of opportunities that persist in current organisational practices. Rather than imploring women to simply act more confidently to win over a recruitment panel, it makes more sense to instil more objective criteria into the evaluation process so that the most capable person is appointed. And when we invest in equipping and empowering women to step into positions of leadership, we also need to support them to make the system more equitable for those who follow.


Collectively these findings point towards the cultural challenges of breaking the mould of traditional gender norms. Women are not necessarily rewarded for “acting like a man”. And men can suffer repercussions for failing to live up to traditional expectations of masculinity. Breaking free of gender biases means interrogating all instances where women are judged more harshly than men for stepping into traditionally male domains, as well as all instances where men are judged more harshly for adopting traditionally female roles or traits. Re-designing systems and policies, rather than waiting for cultural norms to evolve, is the way to snuff out the tug of traditional biases and accelerate progress towards equality.


Helping to turn these insights into action

The research I’ve shared with you here is part of a growing body of work that is disentangling “what works” from “what doesn’t” in terms of driving meaningful, authentic, and sustainable progress on gender equality in the workforce and wider society.


In a research project with my colleagues from Harvard University’s Women and Public Policy Program, Siri Chilazi and Sebawit Bishu, we are developing a big-picture framework to help organisations navigate the array of gender equality initiatives that are out there. Guided by the evidence, we identify a need to clearly differentiate between policies that aim to ‘change women’ to fit into the existing system, from those policies that aim to instead cleanse the biases and inequities from the system.


To equip organisations in Australia to implement evidence-based gender equality strategies, and with the support of the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia, I am also working towards the creation of Gender Equality Evidence Hub. The Hub will pull together academic research insights on what works to close gender gaps, translate it into accessible terms, and disseminate it in the form of practical policy implementations that businesses, governments and community leaders in Australia can put into action.


Dr Leonora Risse is an economist who specialises in gender equality in the workforce. She is a Research Fellow with the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia and a Research Fellow with the Women and Public Policy Program of Harvard University. She holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Queensland and is currently appointed as a Lecturer in Economics at RMIT University. She currently serves as National Chair of the Women in Economics Network in Australia.


This research paper is published in ‘Leaning in: Is higher confidence the key to women's career advancement?’ Australian Journal of Labour Economics, Volume 23, No. 1, 2020.