I was at a lunch last week focusing on, yes you guessed it, gender diversity. A wonderfully compelling and accomplished senior leader talked about the challenges she had faced managing her own confidence over her career. She had struggled with it, yet overcame it, to be the highly successful leader she is today.

She then talked about her concern for her daughter, who began her career as a strong and ambitious woman, very clear about who she was and what she wanted. But over time, she had experienced persistent prescriptive messages about how she should behave, which had an accumulating effect that she likened to acid rain. A drop at a time, but devastating over time, and her confidence was eroding.

I’ve had my own struggle with confidence, and it remains a common discourse when we speak about women, ambition, careers and leadership. Our usual solution, and it was in this case, is to encourage/exhort women to ‘be confident’.

It’s time to grapple with this in another way.  It’s time for a more refined discourse about women and confidence than the one we speak to now.

Having thought about this a great deal in recent times, and read what evidence I can, I have come to the following conclusion.

Women’s confidence is not the issue we should be talking about. Confirmation bias is.

Women do not lack a ‘confidence’ gene, or suffer from an inability to develop confidence skills, nor are they unable to develop a confident attitude. The example above highlights that women may be confident to begin with, but in the work environment they learn to moderate it, or be moderated! Their behaviour is shaped, and they shape themselves, in line with expectations about what women should be like.

How does confirmation bias work?

Gender stereotypes are both descriptive and prescriptive. Confidence runs directly counter to being feminine, submissive, kind and gentle. The female stereotype sees women as being better at support than leadership roles. They should therefore not be confident of their ability to hold such roles.

Our stereotypes influence our perceptions of others, causing us to make them seem more stereotype-consistent. And they influence our behaviour, leading us to interact with others in ways that elicit stereotype-consistent behaviour from them.

If we believe that the category ‘woman’ is not confident, then we will notice elements of a lack of confidence when we interact with women. In social settings information is often ambiguous and we can interpret it in different ways, so we tend to use our stereotypes to guide our inferences.  We tend to focus on the information that confirms the stereotype, while ignoring or misinterpreting anything that contradicts it.

People are much better at recalling information that is stereotype-consistent. For example, they are more likely to later recall and tell the story of the one woman who wasn’t confident, than the five who were.

And if gender is salient for any reason, then stereotypes are even more likely to influence perceptions.

If we hold the general belief that women lack confidence, then we behave towards them as if they were not confident. And women themselves learn not to display confidence.

A couple of pieces of the research in this area:

  • In one experiment, female job applicants were divided into two groups, one being told that their male interviewer had traditional views about women, the other nontraditional. Women in the first group downplayed their ambitions and behaved much more femininely during the interview than those interviewed in the nontraditional cohort.
  • In a similar experiment, women performed poorly on intelligence tasks.
  • In yet another, women behaved more stereotypically with men who had power over them.

Merely anticipating the expectations of others can shape behaviour in line with stereotypes.

And as with all stereotypes, they may be conscious and/or implicit, and we may not be aware when the latter are impacting our perceptions and behaviour.

What women at work experience is a double bind that arises from confirmation bias. Leaders need to be confident, yet women understand that the expression of confidence in their leadership capability runs counter to stereotypical expectations to be submissive and supportive of others.

Let’s stop exhorting women to increase their confidence, and start a new discourse. What will you say?

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