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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 over-prepared, 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.
The research claims that women are expected to care for others on top of their workload, whilst men are held to a lower standard of key performance indicators.
“Despite this pro-social quality not being listed on any job description, it appears to be the key performance indicator against which access, power and influence is granted to successful women,” says Guillén.
“In order to combat this, human resources departments should make sure that women and men are being evaluated against the same criteria in the hiring process and when being selected for promotions.
“Performance appraisals often contain nearly twice the amount of language about being warm for women than for men.
“These unconscious gender biases must be confronted so that talents and skills across organizations are rewarded fairly, regardless of gender.”
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.