“Just be more confident, be more ambitious, be more like a man.”
These are the words of advice given over and over to women in a bid to close the career and earnings gaps between women and men.
From self-help books to confidence coaching, the message to “lean in” and show confidence in the workplace is pervasive, propelled by Facebook Executive Sheryl Sandberg through her worldwide Lean In movement:
Women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves. We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in
But where is the proof they work?
Repeated advice needn’t be right
As a labour economist, and a recipient of such advice throughout my own career, I wanted to find out.
So I used Australian survey data to investigate the link between confidence and job promotion for both men and women. The results have just been published in the Australian Journal of Labour Economics.
when confronted by a difficult problem, I prefer to start on it straight away
I like situations where I can find out how capable I am
I am attracted to tasks that allow me to test my abilities
I start feeling anxious if I do not understand a problem immediately
In difficult situations where a lot depends on me, I am afraid of failing
I feel uneasy about undertaking a task if I am unsure of succeeding
More than 7,500 workers provided answers to these questions in the 2013 HILDA survey.
Confidence matters, with a catch
Using a statistical technique called Oaxaca-Blinder decomposition I investigated the link between their answers and whether or not they experienced a promotion in the following year.
After controlling for a range of factors, including the job opportunities on offer, I discovered higher hope for success was clearly linked to a higher likelihood of promotion.
But there was a catch: the link was only clear for men.
For women, there was no clear evidence stronger confidence enhanced job promotion prospects.
Put differently, “leaning in” provides no guarantee of a payoff for women.
Promotion rate for men and women by hope for success
Personality traits reveal further gender patterns.
Men who display boldness and charisma, reflected by high extraversion, also experience a stronger likelihood of promotion. As do men who display the attitude that whatever happens to them in life is a result of their own choices and efforts, a trait we call “locus of control”.
But again there is no link between any of these traits and the promotion prospects for women.
Collectively these findings point to a disturbing template for career success: be confident, be ambitious… and be male.
Be male and unafraid
This template for promotion also prescribes: don’t show fear of failure. Among managers, though not among workers as a whole, fear of failure is linked to weaker job promotion prospects — but more profoundly for men than women.
This echoes the way society penalises male leaders for revealing emotional weakness. Both men and women are hindered by gender norms.
So what’s the harm in confidence training?
‘Fixing’ women is itself a problem
Workplaces would be served better by basing their hiring and promotion decisions on competency and capability rather than confidence and charisma.
- ^ Lean In (leanin.org)
- ^ underrepresented (www.wgea.gov.au)
- ^ Australian Journal of Labour Economics (businesslaw.curtin.edu.au)
- ^ HILDA (melbourneinstitute.unimelb.edu.au)
- ^ achievement motivation (www.apa.org)
- ^ 'Walking into a headwind' – what it feels like for women building science careers (theconversation.com)
- ^ hope for success (businesslaw.curtin.edu.au)
- ^ fear of failure (businesslaw.curtin.edu.au)
- ^ Gender differences at work: relishing competence or seeking a challenge? (theconversation.com)
- ^ Source: Author’s analysis using the HILDA Survey (businesslaw.curtin.edu.au)
- ^ more harm than good (theconversation.com)
- ^ diverse (hbr.org)
- ^ fixing women (www.newsouthbooks.com.au)
- ^ anti-discrimination initiatives (hbr.org)
- ^ liabilities (onlinelibrary.wiley.com)
- ^ Gap or trap? Confidence backlash is the real problem for women (theconversation.com)
- ^ steadily (www.newsouthbooks.com.au)
- ^ growing number (www.sl.nsw.gov.au)
Authors: Leonora Risse, Lecturer in Economics, RMIT University