Why “Believe in Yourself” Is Bad Advice for Women

In the workplace, women can capitalise on self-confidence only when they exhibit “feminine” behaviours as well.

Aspiring women leaders are commonly told that their key to success in male-dominated environments is self-confidence. Men have it; women don’t—which accounts for the size and stubbornness of the gender leadership gap.

In the academic literature, too, study after study has found a direct link between self-confidence and influence over others. If talented people with high self-esteem naturally attract more followers than those whose valid contributions are stifled by self-doubt, then more women could become leaders simply by believing in themselves. But if it were that easy for women to get what they deserve, would we still be talking about it?

In fact, confidence is not so straightforward. It is in the eye of the beholder. Our colleagues can’t read our thoughts (fortunately for us). They don’t know how we really feel about ourselves and our abilities. What matters is being perceived as self-confident. And this subjective element opens the door to bias, as I describe in a new study co-authored by Laura Guillén of ESMT Berlin and Margarita Mayo of IE Business School.

The study revealed that men and women have sharply divergent routes for converting self-confidence into organisational influence. The path available to women is far more complex, winding through cultural stereotypes that have everything to do with gender.

Perceptions of confidence

Going into our study, we had several hypotheses. Since there is no objective way to judge others’ self-confidence, people tend to use proxies, one of which is performance. When we see someone who gets results, we are likely to project onto that person the entire leadership package: self-confidence as well as ambition, status, charisma, etc. But the imagined leadership attributes we associate with high performers are highly contextual. In male-dominated environments, the mantle of leadership will seem to settle more easily on the shoulders of men, because that’s what is already familiar—and hence expected—within that context.

We hypothesised that in environments with very few women in leadership roles, high-performing women cannot rely solely on self-confidence to propel them up the ranks. Because gender stereotypes guide people’s behaviour and judgement in a rather automatic manner, women are likely to be expected to demonstrate further qualities, in accordance with comforting stereotypes of womanhood. In particular, we expected that being a good organisational citizen, being prosocial, and demonstrating care for the welfare of the organisation and peers are likely to be additional, implicit but “obligatory” requirements for women to achieve influence.

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