We’ve all heard various bias stories. Many claim it’s not a problem any longer. Other’s say, “I’ve had bias training, so we no longer behave that way.” Yet, gender biases still persist in the classroom and in the workplace.
I recently had a conversation with a woman who was in the process of selling her business. She received a number of inquiries followed by strategic management presentations with potential buyers. Unfortunately, these activities did not yield results. Feedback from potential buyers and her broker about why the sale wasn’t attractive provided little insight. Finally, someone suggested, confidentially of course, that perhaps she should consider adding a few men to bolster her all-women leadership team. The suggestion took her by surprise. It is 2016, after all, yet data indicates the vast majority of organizations have all men leadership teams.
“All men teams are the norm, but it’s not okay to have one that’s all women?” she claimed in frustration.
If you’re still not convinced, let’s look at another recent example. Last August (yes, 2015) a woman author finally decided to submit her manuscript under a male pseudonym and found this strategy brought her more than eight times the number of responses than what she had received using her own name.
The story about her experience was published in the Guardian. Author Catherine Nichols sent out her novel with own byline to 50 agents and she received just two manuscript requests. But when she set up a new email address under a male name, and submitted the same cover letter and manuscript pages to 50 agents, it was requested 17 times. Nothing else was different. Not the cover letter, not the manuscript. Nada…Nothing except for her name.
The rejection responses she received were even a bit more hair-raising. The Guardian article noted that responses from agents to the author named Catherine Nichols included comments like “beautiful writing, but your main character isn’t very plucky, is she?”. However, responses to her male pseudonym, were “polite and warm”, even when they were rejections, describing the work as “clever”, “well-constructed” and “exciting”.
I was reminded of these stories when several weeks ago the Washington Post published a story about male students giving other male students a confidence boost in the classroom. According to the article, Dan Grunspan, an anthropology professor at the University of Washington, had noticed that overwhelmingly male students assumed their male classmates knew more about course material than female students — even if the young women earned better grades. He experienced this phenomenon so many times that he was compelled to do a bit of more formal research where he created a study to quantify the degree of this type of gender bias in the classroom.
After surveying roughly 1,700 students across three biology courses, he found young men consistently gave each other more credit than they awarded to their just-as-savvy female classmates. In fact, men over-ranked their peers by three-quarters of a GPA point. Grunspan described being male as “some kind of boost,” in the eyes of other men.
This description reminded me of how I felt working in the male-dominated workplaces in tech and digital advertising. Most men don’t actually understand or believe that just being male is almost like having a type of “turbo-charger” built in, as opposed to being a woman where you have to continually manufacturer momentum. And, it’s not just the bias factor, but also fighting off the sometimes inherent lack of confidence and feelings of ambiguity toward power cause a continual drain on energy.
Studies indicate that women tend to underestimate their abilities and are often less confident than men. The lack of confidence and gender bias combination are concerning when one considers the impact in the classroom and in the workplace. When writing Grace Meets Grit, I researched the confidence leadership behavior in men compared to women. Turns out, men tend to be over-confident, while women feel under-confident more often than not. This makes for some interesting work situations.
Several years ago, I worked with a woman who decided to forgo applying for a promotion because she didn’t quite feel ready for the role, and she was really upset when one of her peers, a man, applied for the role. She did not believe he was any more qualified than she was, and she felt he knew this about himself but took the leap anyway. She felt he was intentionally deceiving others by applying for a role he knew he wasn’t qualified for. This was not the first time I had heard a woman express frustration about this issue. Research points to the fact that men are more naturally confident and genuinely believe in their abilities – even when others think it may be a stretch. They aren’t just trying to pull the sheepskin over others’ eyes.
A Columbia Business School study published in 2011 found men are not consciously trying to fool anyone into believing they are more competent than they actually are. Instead, they are naturally overconfident and actually believe they are qualified, even if they have only a few of the credentials outlined in a job specification. Women, on the other hand, in general lack confidence.
This study also highlighted the organizational impact of women missing confidence when it found women are selected 33% less often than their actual abilities suggesting that the underrepresentation of women in a competitive environment is not always due to overt discrimination or to gender differences in preferences, but to the fact that men tend to be overconfident when they recall their own abilities and women are underestimating theirs.
Unfortunately, when faced with a competitive situation, like the example described earlier where a woman and man are choosing whether or not to apply for a promotion, studies have found that the relative performance of women versus their male counterparts actually worsens, and the impact is even significant if the other individual competing is a man. In fact, these studies have found that women prefer to opt out of competitive situations altogether, even if it was financially beneficial for them to participate. This is disturbing because statistically speaking women are competing against men for leadership positions and will be for some time.
When I am coaching women, I am often asked if my own confidence improves with age. I can honestly say that in some cases I find this to be true. I am certainly more confident in speaking up and worry less about what other people will think, or the backlash that might come as a result of my words or actions. However, I still am somewhat uncomfortable with self-promotion. I have to actively work on it – all of the time. A recent Vogue interview with Hillary Clinton quoted her as saying that even Hillary finds it challenging to promote herself, despite believing that she is the best candidate for President. We are not alone.
Research seems to support that women’s lack of confidence does not improve with age or experience. An Institute of Leadership and Management Study found that men are much more confident than women across all age groups. In leadership positions, the discrepancy was particularly significant with 70% of male managers having high or quite high levels of self-confidence, compared to 50% of women. Half of women managers admitted to having feelings of self-doubt, compared with only 31% of men.
The same study found a strong link between managers’ confidence levels and ambition. Women who had low confidence exhibited much lower expectations about reaching a leadership and management role as well as achieving their career ambitions.
The important take-away is that men are more willing to put themselves forward for leadership roles, even if they feel they do not meet the full criteria for the role. The study showed that 85% of women would only apply for a position if they met the job description “fully” or “pretty well.”
Men, on the other hand, tend to be over confident and give more credit to men, automatically. In order for us to close the gap and rise through the ranks, we will need to demonstrate confidence – and not allow it to waver – at least externally.
When doubting my own abilities, I often recall an interview I did with my boss’s wife to complete an entry for submission for an industry award. I asked her what she felt inspired him to achieve greatness in his career. She said that despite his humble beginnings, limited experience, and young age, he approached every opportunity with a simple philosophy: “why not me?“ This mindset, accompanied with the absolute conviction that he could bring value to every opportunity, had propelled him to amazing career heights, despite his competency level of lack of experience. We can all ask ourselves “why not me?” in a moment of opportunity or doubt.
Brain science provides some insight about additional factors that contribute to why men possess greater confidence. Women tend to activate their amygdalae, the part of the brain involved in processing emotional memory when responding to stressful situations, more often than men suggesting that they may have a greater emotional response to negative events. Women are also more likely to dwell on past negative experiences due to the fact that the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that helps us to recognize errors and weigh options, is larger in women. And, finally, the predominance of estrogen, which discourages conflict and risk-taking, may play a role in hindering confidence in women.
In contrast, men have built-in confidence-bolstering kryptonite in the form of the hormone testosterone, known to cultivate risk-taking. Obviously, a strong appetite to take chances has both positive and negative consequences. An over-abundance of testosterone in animals has been known to cause aggression, overconfidence and even fatal risk-taking. We have all seen the consequences of this play out in business, particularly on Wall Street. Yet, despite the down sides, having confidence is truly important in order to be successful.
University of California Berkeley psychologist Cameron Anderson has spent his career studying overconfidence. His studies repeatedly point to the fact that individuals who are self-assured and confident are most admired and listened to regardless of their status or situation. He believes confidence manifests itself in body language, specifically in taking up space in the room, speaking calmly and at a lower tone as well as a tendency to speak early and often but in a calm, relaxed manner. People have difficulty truly judging whether someone is actually confident, so it’s important to remember that even if you don’t have it, displaying it is what really counts.
I grew up around horses and my life long work with them has taught me a lot about confidence. Horses are prey animals that depend on the leader within the herd to keep them safe. A rider, becomes the horse’s leader the moment she removes the horse from its herd. Because of this, the horse will continually challenge the rider to ensure she demonstrates leadership. Therefore, a good rider must demonstrate confidence. Turns out, the same mantra Anderson advocated in demonstrating confidence through body language works really well with a horse too.
Taking up space in the saddle, speaking often in a calm, relaxed manner work beautifully to calm a rattled horse. A 1200-pound horse fighting for his head and threatening to rip the reins from your hands in an effort to give in to his own innate desire to flee an uncomfortable situation, is the most confidence wavering situation I can think of.
I remember this as I am up in front of a room delivering a presentation to 2000 people and my confidence falters, I imagine I am in the saddle in order to regain my confidence I take up space, speak often in a calm, relaxed manner. It works!
In order for us to close the gap and rise through the ranks, we will need to activate our own super power and demonstrate confidence – and not allow it to waver – at least externally – EVER. So, get on your horse!! Be confident.
Breathe out. Take up space. Speak calmly, and in a relaxed manner. Embrace your super power. You are confident.