The Confidence Gap: What It Is, Where It’s From, and What We Can Do

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As we near Women’s Equality Day, let’s strive to better understand just what the confidence gap is, its implications, if any, on women both in and out of the workplace, and what we can do to close the gap.

Note: We want to emphasize that this information is reflective of third-party research and does not reflect every woman’s experience in the workforce.

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The confidence gap between men and women has seemingly become a hot topic, especially as it pertains to the workplace. An article from The Atlantic argues that “there is a particular crisis for women – a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes.”

As we near Women’s Equality Day, let’s strive to better understand just what this so-called confidence gap is, its implications, if any, on women both in and out of the workplace, and what we can do to close the gap.

What is the confidence gap?

The confidence gap refers to women generally feeling less confident in themselves and their abilities than men do, resulting in fewer chances at success in the workplace and beyond. According to The Atlantic, “Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities.” Here, we stress confidence, as this gap between men and women is based on confidence, not competence – “men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both. Their performances do not differ in quality,” says The Atlantic.

So, if in a given industry and role, men and women tend to equally possess the same skills and knowledge necessary to succeed, what is the cause of this lack of confidence resulting in fewer women being promoted, landing leadership roles, and investing in the stock market? Many sources point to a gender gap as well as gender bias, structural disadvantages, and the traditional expectation of women to be caregivers, not CEOs.

Gender Gap

The World Economic Forum defines the gender gap as “the difference between women and men as reflected in social, political, intellectual, cultural, or economic attainments or attitudes.” We’ve certainly seen immense progress in closing this gender gap, particularly in the labor market. According to an article by Claudia Goldin, “the gender gap in U.S. labor force participation has been eroding steadily for at least 110 years. In 1890, 15 percent of women in the United States aged twenty-five to forty-four reported an occupation outside the home. This figure increased to…76 percent by 2000.”

However, we still see women lagging behind men in certain areas, including leadership. As of 2021, only 33 of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs, according to Leftronic. Gender bias could be to blame for some of this. An article from Workable points to a history of gender imbalance – “One of the main reasons for this gender inequality is that we’re tied to old habits. Historically, C-suite roles are held by men.” Workable also considers unconscious bias a major player in the gender gap – “generalizations and stereotypes…impact the way women are treated in the workplace. We’re inclined to think that women won’t be able to handle their management duties, instead of creating a work-life balanced environment for all employees or instead of building up those necessary leadership skills among our high-potential staff, regardless of their gender.”

Add to that certain structural disadvantages through all stages (i.e. recruitment, employee retention) and the expectation of women to be caregivers and it becomes clearer why this confidence gap may be lingering.

Why is the confidence gap a problem?

We see the impacts of the confidence gap in many areas, including finance, promotion, and leadership. According to NextAdvisor, “the confidence gap plays a role in women’s financial plans for the future and makes them less likely to do certain things like invest in the stock market.” Many women cite an overall lack of confidence as one of the major barriers to investing.

Research indicates that women generally earn less and have fewer savings than men. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, within most occupational categories, women who work full-time, year-round earn only 82% (on average) of what men earn. This wage gap can significantly impact women’s overall savings, Social Security, and pensions. The Motley Fool says that “lower wages and a lack of confidence hurt women’s ability to succeed as investors, and in the absence of big changes, female investors may continue to lag, especially when it comes to long-term wealth and retirement savings.”

This is a problem, especially when research tells us that women have longer life expectancies than men, indicating several financial challenges. Women will likely need to stretch their retirement dollars further than men and likely need some type of long-term care. They also may have to face some of their healthcare needs alone.

Research also confirms links between the confidence gap and a reduced tendency to negotiate, receive a pay raise, and achieve leadership roles, according to Future Learn. That being said, research also tells us that “companies employing women in large numbers outperform their competitors on every measure of profitability,” according to The Atlantic. So how do we close this gap and ensure women are working toward their greatest potential at the same pace as their male counterparts?

What can we do?

Given that the confidence gap affects women differently and some maybe not at all, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. For those women seriously impacted by this gap especially in their workplace, we have to be careful about the advice we give. Naomi Cahn of Forbes says, “While we can simply tell women to ‘lean in’ – to promote more, negotiate more, and take themselves more seriously – that blames the women for not taking the right steps.” Instead, we must focus on the factors contributing to the confidence gap, like gender biases and stereotypes, and see how we can use this knowledge to close the gap.

Many sources touch on the following recommendations:

  • Encourage workplaces to challenge gender stereotypes and biases.
  • Support and encourage women to speak up about their achievements, wants, and needs without fear of backlash.
  • Use more objective metrics instead of self-promotion to measure employee performance.

We can also encourage women on the individual level. If you’re facing impacts of the confidence gap, consider managing your self-talk, striving for a growth mindset, carefully choosing who you spend your time with, and bringing your concerns to the table.

The confidence gap can have serious implications for women. As The Atlantic puts it, “A growing body of evidence shows just how devastating this lack of confidence can be. Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels. All of that is the bad news. The good news is that with work, confidence can be acquired. Which means that the confidence gap, in turn, can be closed.”


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