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The Confidence Gap

This sections gives consideration to 'The Confidence Gap' as a barrier to progression in the workplace
© University of Exeter


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One of the barriers to progression in the workplace has been the so-called ‘confidence gap’ that women are argued to experience. The interesting thing about the confidence gap is that even successful women, who often appear confident, can fall victim to it. Of course, men can experience a lack of confidence too, but evidence suggests that women are more likely to experience a comparative lack of confidence, particularly at the start of their careers. This in turn can give the impression that women are less capable and competent or give the women themselves this impression, meaning they are less likely to value their abilities, take opportunities, and negotiate appropriate recognition for their work when compared to men.

The ‘science’ behind the confidence gap.

Self-perception is a key influence on how we estimate our performance, and errors in our self-perception (where we compare ourselves less favourably to others or the average person) can impact our decision-making and choices. In a research project exploring the relationship between self-perception and performance, a study explored women’s and men’s performance of a science quiz and their opinions of their performance. It concluded that men and women performed equally well, but women underestimated their performance because they had a lower opinion of their scientific reasoning skills. The consequences of this were that they were less likely to enter a competition [1]. The key point is that perceptions of performance influences actions. As a result of their study, Ehrlinger and Dunning concluded that women were less likely to pursue careers in science as they doubted their ability. A more recent study also found that, whilst gender differences in performance in mathematics had almost disappeared, the difference in self efficacy whereby men had more confidence in their mathematical ability, remained [2]. Many studies focus on science-based areas, but there is also evidence that differences in self-efficacy that are detrimental to women are found in many fields, such as academia [3], and entrepreneurship [4].
The confidence gap has also been linked with a reduced tendency to negotiate and ask for things [5] which can lead to less opportunities being sought and taken and a reduced likelihood to negotiate a pay rise, for example. It is also linked with the reduced likelihood for taking on or expecting to achieve leadership roles, which means women are less likely to be in positions of power and influence [6].
A perceived lack of confidence can also lead to detrimental outcomes through others not valuing their competence. For example, one study found that people were more likely to lie to a woman than a man in negotiations, because the woman’s perceived lack of confidence was assumed to reflect a relative lack of competence [7]. Conversely, research has suggested that appearing confident can lead to an attribution of greater competence than actual competence might achieve. Put another way, an over confident man with average competence would be more highly regarded than a more competent (but less confident) woman [8].
Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, successful US-based news reporters, discuss the confidence gap, and the role it plays alongside the factors traditionally associated with a lack of progression, such as motherhood and cultural factors. If you like you can read a brief summary of their thoughts which includes link to an interview and a quiz on confidence, based on their own experiences and research on women’s self-doubt. In it they explore the reasons for why women may lack confidence when compared to men, including:
The need to achieve ‘perfection’ (or strive towards it) rather than be confident with being ‘good enough’ The tendency for women to be confident they can do 100% of a job before applying for it (where men will settle for 60% of the criteria being met) The greater exposure that men have to competitive sports meaning they are more experienced at coping with failure The tendency for women to ruminate and agonise over mistakes and failures and develop self-doubt An inclination not to be as vocal in meetings, and to assume that men will speak more. A natural difference in brain functioning that means women think and act differently to men.
Do you agree with their arguments?
  1. Ehrlinger, J. and Dunning, D. ‘How Chronic Self-Views Influence (and Potentially Mislead) Estimates of Performance’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003; 84 (1): 5–17. DOI: <10.1037/0022-3514.84.1.5>
  2. Ross, J. A., Scott, G. and Bruce, C. D. ‘The Gender Confidence Gap in Fractions Knowledge: Gender Differences in Student Belief–Achievement Relationships’. School Science and Mathematics. 2012; 112(5): 278-288.
  3. Baker, Maureen. “Career Confidence and Gendered Expectations of Academic Promotion.” Journal of Sociology. 2010; 46(3): 317–34.
  4. Kirkwood, J. (2009) “Is a lack of self‐confidence hindering women entrepreneurs?”, International Journal of Gender and Entrepreneurship. 2009:1( 2): 118-133,
  5. Babcock, L. and Laschever, S. Women don’t ask. Negotiation and the gender divide. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press. 2003
  6. Institute for Leadership and Management ‘Ambition and gender at work’. ILM Report.; 2011.
  7. Kray, L. J., Kennedy, J. A. and Van Zant, A. B. ‘Not competent enough to know the difference? Gender stereotypesabout women’s ease of being misled predict negotiator deception’ Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.2014; 125(2): 61-72.
  8. Anderson, C., Brion, S., Moore, D. A., & Kennedy, J. A. A status-enhancement account of overconfidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2012; 103(4), 718-735.
© University of Exeter
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