Messages about confidence damaging women’s progress, research finds

26 Jul 2018 By Lauren Brown

Study reveals ‘lazy stereotypes’ mean women encouraged to focus on wrong attributes to get ahead

Women don’t get ahead in the workplace when they exhibit stereotypical signs of confidence, research has found, suggesting employers might be pushing their female staff to develop the wrong aspects of their leadership style. 

The study, which involved a male-dominated technology company with 4,000 employees, discovered men perceived to be self-confident were more likely to progress at work and be seen as persuasive leaders. But, while women are told they must also be confident to get ahead, the researchers found they actually had more influence in a company when they were seen as warm, sociable and caring.

Researchers from a number of European business schools also discovered a gap between women’s own reports of their self-confidence versus how confident their colleagues thought they appeared.

Margarita Mayo, professor of leadership at IE Business School and one of the researchers behind the study, said the results showed women are regularly expected to be confident on top of nurturing. 

She told People Management that, while competence and warmth are generally used to evaluate others, these qualities are overly weighted for women in performance evaluations. 

Mayo added: “It is not enough for women to be merely as helpful as men. To get credit or get promoted women are expected to have confidence as well as go out of their way to be empathetic and dedicated to others.”

Laura Guillén, professor of organisational behaviour at ESMT Berlin and a researcher on the study, said messaging about how women need to appear more self-confident to be successful is not only false but “dampens the gender-diversity of the workforce”. 

“[It] places the onus on the female employees themselves to conform with lazy, masculine stereotypes,” she said. 

She continued: “To get ahead, women are having to care for others while their male counterparts focus on their own objectives. Despite this prosocial 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.” 

To combat the implicit gendering of workplace progression, Guillén said HR departments must make sure employees of all genders are being evaluated against the same criteria in the hiring and promotion decision-making process. 

“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 organisations are rewarded fairly, regardless of gender,” Guillén said.  

And Mayo warned HR and line managers could risk coming across as patronising if they try to push women to be more confident. She said warmth should be kept out of the equation when it comes to women’s performance evaluations to make sure they are conducted “equally and independently”. 

Commenting on the research, Dr Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj, associate professor in entrepreneurial leadership at Henley Business School, said line managers and HR are “pivotal in changing behaviour”. 

She added: “The key is to get to know their team members and build an inclusive culture where individuals can play to their strengths. This is not patronising, it is about treating colleagues as human beings.” 

Meanwhile, Mok O’Keefe, founder of the Innovation Beehive, said it was easy to champion diversity but added action had to follow.

O’Keefe said: “Ideas are not enough...Having relationships with a multitude of stakeholders impacts whether or not these ideas move through the organisation and are implemented. HR practitioners can help their people to understand how to influence and communicate effectively with different stakeholders and how to flex communication style, which will impact on how you are perceived by that stakeholder.” 

HR Manager

HR Manager

Sevenoaks, Kent

Dependent on skills and experience but likely up to be in the region of £47 - £52,000

Sevenoaks School

Head of HR

Head of HR

Sevenoaks, Kent

Dependent on skills and experience but likely up to £70,000

Sevenoaks School

Head of Workforce OD

Head of Workforce OD

Birmingham, West Midlands

Salary scale £63,751 to £73,664 pa

University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Trust

View More Jobs

Explore related articles