The Confidence Gap Is A Myth, But A Double Standard Does Exist: How Women Can Navigate

By Hanna Hart | Forbes | May 27, 2019

Often when I’m conducting 360 feedback interviews for women in leadership, well-meaning colleagues say, “She should be more confident.” Most times, they are just speculating and don’t really know how the subject feels, so I ask them to describe the behavior that they interpret as lack of confidence. This often leads to some verbal hand-waving around “executive presence.” Definitions of executive presence are a lot like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s assertion about obscenity that “I know it when I see it,” and therefore not terribly helpful. That said, executive presence relates to authority and trustworthiness, which includes projecting confidence. Specific behaviors include: speaking up in meetings, taking up space physically, projecting one’s voice, directness and clarity of speech, asserting oneself and promoting one’s own ideas or work. We read these behaviors as indicators of confidence, and colleagues often infer a lack of confidence when they are absent. Because many of these “executive” behaviors show up more in men, we perceive a “confidence gap.”

However, recent research suggests that women are not actually less confident than men. Several studies found that the reason so many women do not assert themselves in the workplace is not that they lack confidence in their skills, competence or ideas, but instead that they are trying to avoid the “backlash effect”—the social consequence of asserting or promoting themselves. According to Laura Guillen, “While self-confidence is gender-neutral, the consequences of appearing self-confident are not.” Women who project self-confidence are often seen as less likable and are penalized if they “do not temper their agency with niceness.” Women are expected to be both confident and “prosocial”—demonstrating care and concern for others—while men can promote themselves without showing care for others and not be perceived negatively.

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