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Bridging the gender gap to achieve true equity in leadership

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ARTICLE SUMMARY

Rosie Evans-Krimme, Head of Behavioural Science EMEA, CoachHub, looks at the psychology behind the leadership confidence gap and how it manifests in the workplace

BUSINESSES OFTEN MAKE THE MISTAKE OF PRIORITISING UPSKILLING THE WOMEN IN THEIR WORKFORCE TO ENCOURAGE GREATER DIVERSITY IN LEADERSHIP.

This is clearly an important step, but fails to account for the range of barriers women experience when progressing in their careers.

Many post that one of the barriers to progression in the workplace has been the so-called ‘confidence gap’ that women experience. This refers to the theory that women are more likely to experience a comparative lack of confidence to their male peers. As a result, women are often less likely to value their abilities, take opportunities, and negotiate appropriate recognition for their work when compared to men.

Rosie Evans-Krimme, Head of Behavioural Science EMEA, CoachHub

In this article, Rosie Evans-Krimme, Head of Behavioural Science EMEA, CoachHub, looks at the psychology behind the leadership confidence gap and how it manifests in the workplace; how businesses can support their female employees in developing confidence; and how they can create a more welcoming, progressive environment for women’s career development.

Rosie leads teams across EMEA in scientific research on coaching, learning, and professional development, with research areas ranging from the future of work to organisational change and beyond. Rosie is also a certified positive psychology and business coach, working with individuals to combine their personal growth with their organisation’s strategic goals.

IN MANY WAYS, WE FIND OURSELVES IN A GOLDEN ERA OF WOMEN’S REPRESENTATION IN THE WORKPLACE.

Across FTSE 350 company boards, 40% of roles are now held by women, a target which was met almost three years in advance of the 2025 deadline. Thanks to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives, as well as professional development resources like training courses and coaching, women are getting closer to shattering the glass ceiling that has been holding them back.

These great strides are nevertheless accompanied by some persistent challenges. Representation is improving at the most senior levels of organisations, but the broader business environment lags a little behind. According to LinkedIn data, women occupy less than a third (30%) of management roles in the UK, pointing to the barriers many women face in taking that first step up to a leadership position.

Among the obstacles women experience when moving into more senior roles is the confidence gap – a psychological phenomenon that can prevent women from realising their full potential. Through this lens, we can consider a range of actionable tips for businesses to tackle gender equality and create more inclusive workplace environments.

WHAT IS THE LEADERSHIP CONFIDENCE GAP?

Almost everyone has downplayed their strengths at some stage in their life. When taking up a new sport, someone may devalue their athletic abilities in conversation to avoid embarrassment if their skills aren’t quite up to scratch on the pitch.

In the workplace, this phenomenon is often gendered. Researchers Exely and Kessler found that men are far more comfortable with self-promotion than their female counterparts, a gender difference which can go back as early as primary school. During the researchers’ study, men were consistently more likely to overstate their performance than women. Even when the women in the study were informed that they had performed at least as well as their male counterparts, they continued to undersell their abilities.

This behaviour is often exhibited by women in the workplace, which can impact their career progression in a variety of ways. For example, when women are offered a new role or promotion, they can be less likely to negotiate higher salaries than their male counterparts, leading to them losing out on career opportunities. A well-known Hewlett Packard internal report highlights this trend, stating that men confidently apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women are more apprehensive, only applying if they meet 100% of the qualifications. Even though the research is almost a decade old, the challenges it raises still remain in many workplaces.

The confidence gap between men and women in the workplace is a key barrier to women’s advancement into senior leadership roles. Not only does this impact women’s career development, but can also negatively impact organisations – research suggests that gender diversity in teams can lead to higher performance. As such, overcoming the gender confidence gap not only benefits female employees, but can deliver improved returns to the business.

ADDRESSING UNCONSCIOUS BIAS IN PERFORMANCE METRICS

Conquering the gender confidence gap could be seen as simply a matter of encouraging female employees to build their confidence. Whilst this is an essential part of creating an environment in which women can thrive as leaders, a whole host of external factors also come into play.

Research finds that when women develop leadership characteristics like confidence or assertiveness, these are often negatively perceived in performance reviews. For example, Stanford University research found that in performance reviews of both men and women in tech, women receive significantly more negative feedback, particularly based on personality traits that were interpreted in a different light depending on one’s gender. For example, while a woman might be called abrasive, a man with similar qualities might be labelled as confident or assertive.

Even when women develop key leadership qualities, unconscious bias can impede them from progressing into more senior roles. Managers should be trained in how to give feedback that is gender-neutral and ensure that performance improvement conversations, when they are necessary, are as inclusive as possible. This can be encouraged through coaching sessions for individual managers, as well as cross-workforce training. Addressing unconscious bias on an organisational level is vital to ensuring that everyone has the tools to succeed, regardless of their gender.

SUPPORTING WOMEN TO UNLOCK THEIR POTENTIAL

Beyond performance reviews, organisations can implement a number of initiatives focused on helping women perform to the best of their abilities. These can range from educating the workforce on issues experienced by minorities in the workplace, to hands-on programmes for individuals themselves, like coaching throughout the career lifecycle and personalised learning and development.

Leaders also play a vital role in creating inclusive environments for women. In addition to leveraging coaching to accelerate womens’ careers, coaching can be applied to help leaders develop inclusive leadership skills. Diversity is only as good as the leadership behaviours that ensure that people have a sense of belonging and can bring their unique talents to work. This means that in order for organisations to thrive, leaders should focus on building inclusive workplaces first.

Developing an inclusive environment for all employees to thrive is vital to ensuring women’s success. This involves ensuring that an effective DE&I strategy is in place across the business, with programmes such as career progression initiatives for those from minority backgrounds, DE&I training for all employees, and staff networks for employees who identify as women, LGBT+, disabled and more. In creating a more open and inclusive culture, organisations will inevitably find more diversity in their leadership pipelines in the long term.

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