The Confidence Conundrum: Is It Strictly a Women’s Challenge?

In addition to the very real wage gap, women also face another obstacle to success: the confidence gap.

The confidence gap is the systemic problem among women to constantly undervalue and underestimate themselves. Confidence comes from growth and risk-taking, and women are simply not socialized to risk-taking the way that men are. If a risky but exciting business opportunity presents itself, women are more likely to feel tinges of impostor syndrome while a man is more likely to go for it thanks to being socialized with a higher risk tolerance. This isn’t just true of entrepreneurship, either. A Hewlett-Packard study found that professional men are highly likely to apply to jobs they only fit 60% of the qualifications the employer asks for, while most women will not bother trying unless they meet 100% of the qualifications.

Perfectionism isn’t necessarily a strictly female proclivity. Overall, confidence issues are fairly gender-neutral. Plenty of men can and do face the expectation to take less pay for a job because of a flooded labor market and make mistakes running a business, both of which can have a devastating impact on his confidence. But there is a systemic issue when it comes to professional women that contributes to this massive confidence gap: women merely start their careers with lowered expectations.

But how much scare-mongering and low expectations are based in reality, and how much is perpetuated by men who don’t want to compete with women who have superior qualifications?

Why Do Women Lack Confidence?

Poor confidence stems from low expectations and an intolerance for risk. Who wouldn’t have lower expectations in light of the following:

  • Women comprise only 4.2% of S&P 500 CEOs.
  • In Australia, there are literally more men named Peter in C-level positions in ASX 200 companies than women altogether (6.5% and 5.75% respectively.)
  • Only 8% of venture-backed firms have women owners.
  • The wage gap hasn’t gone away when it comes to how much women-owned businesses earn, about $0.15-0.84 for every dollar a man’s business earns.

Those are some fairly depressing statistics that can only compound the “why bother” feeling many women will have. Even though the opportunities are there and women are allowed to chase them, socialization aspects need to be addressed to really close the confidence gap and create some happier statistics.

It starts early. That socialization to be more risk-averse than boys starts in childhood. Boys are called assertive while girls are called bossy. Boys are encouraged to explore and get messy, while girls are told to behave and not get themselves hurt. Boys get “boys will be boys” while girls get held to a higher standard for going against the grain. This has far-reaching impacts that persist well into adulthood where instead of not climbing the monkey bars and risking a fall, it’s taking the first salary or venture capital offer instead of negotiating.

Do I Measure Up? Why Do We Constantly Compare Ourselves?

A major aspect of the confidence gap that frequently gets overlooked is that a lack of professional women as role models means there’s less positive comparisons to make after starting your career. Women are constantly comparing themselves to peers and coworkers and may feel more pressure to do so instead of focusing on an individualized career strategy.

That lack of role models growing up also has far-reaching impacts in that having no examples for professional women, whether they’re family or community members, means having no one to go to for advice on career issues. You’re stuck with the blind leading the blind at work.

Why Do We Have to Please EVERYONE, and Do We Really Have To?

The pressure to constantly please everyone is a mixture of institutionalized sexism and that “don’t rock the boat” socialization girls are raised with. After all, a man who doesn’t do office housework is just busy but a woman who doesn’t do it isn’t a team player. There’s that ingrained expectation that women will just do more things for no additional pay, not much differently than teaching or childrearing.

That pressure will take a toll on your sanity and confidence. Be a team player, but don’t get taken for a ride.

Closing the confidence gap for professional women is a multi-faceted issue that needs to be addressed with a similarly multifaceted approach. It starts with encouraging more risk-taking among women of all ages, and ensuring that young girls have strong professional role models.

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