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Ideas for Leaders #675

Why Self-Confident Women Have Less Influence than Self-Confident Men

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Key Concept

A new study shows that the appearance of self-confidence resulting from high performance gives men greater influence in their organizations. The same is not true for women, who in addition to appearing self-confident must also demonstrate active concern and support for others. 

Idea Summary

Women are still a minority in many male-dominated professions, such as engineering and technology, as well as being a minority in leadership positions in most industries. Past studies have shown that women in these industries have a difficult time exerting the same influence in their organizations. One reason often cited is that women don’t appear to have the same self-confidence as men, which hurts their chances of promotion. 

It is true that individuals who project self-confidence are more likely to be given leadership roles — especially in male-dominated professions in which successful people are assertive and achievement-oriented. However, the assumption that women don’t appear self-confident is a fallacy: women in achievement-oriented domains project as much self-confidence as men. The core problem, as revealed in a new study, is that projecting self-confidence does not have the same consequences for men and women.

Based on a survey of highly skilled computer engineers, their supervisors and their peers at a multinational software development company, the study first confirms that high job performance increases the appearance of self-confidence in the eyes of an individual’s superiors for both men and women. However, according to the results of the study, a man’s self-confidence will increase his influence in the organization while a woman’s self-confidence will not. 

Why this difference? The study offers an explanation by revealing that this gender difference in the impact of self-confidence on influence can be mitigated through ‘pro-social orientation’. 

Pro-social orientation refers to the desire to help others. The results of the study show that the higher a woman’s pro-social orientation, the more influence she will gain from her appearance of self-confidence. In other words, it’s not enough for a woman to appear self-confident as a result of her high performance. Unlike men, she must, in addition, demonstrate a motivation to benefit others and to be a good corporate citizen.

The study was based on surveys of 236 engineers, 22 direct supervisors and 256 stakeholders; the stakeholders included other supervisors and managers, peers, and internal clients. The direct supervisors and the stakeholders evaluated the job performance of the engineers. The 22 direct supervisors evaluated the self-confidence and organizational influence of the engineers. The engineers self-evaluated their pro-social orientation.

Business Application

The fact that a woman’s self-confidence is recognized and appreciated in today’s workplace is a step in the right direction for greater advancement equality. However, women also have to be aware of the pro-social factor — whether fair or not — if they want to be promoted. They have to perform well and also invest time in helping others and being a good citizen. 

This not only puts a burden on women in terms of time and focus, but can also limit their responses to situations in the workforce. For example, women may hesitate more than men to make unpopular decisions or voice challenging positions, since such decisions or positions could impact their pro-social credentials. In this way, ironically, their required pro-social behaviours can slow down their advancement in the organization.

Companies that truly value diversity and gender equality should be aware of these constraints on women, and take steps to neutralize any such gender issues that put women at a disadvantage. Here are several steps companies can take:

  • Decide whether being pro-social is a job requirement (in addition to task performance). Companies should have a list of criteria for success in their organization, and specifically include pro-social behaviour as a criteria item if they value such behaviour. In this way, the job performance of men and women are evaluated along the same criteria.
  • Explicitly include pro-social behaviour in the selection criteria for promotion. Again, the goal is that men and women are evaluated — in this case for promotions — based on the same criteria.
  • Encourage authenticity. If pro-social behaviour is not explicitly encouraged, some women may suppress their pro-social tendencies to “fit in” the culture of the organization — which in the end results in internal tension for the individual. Companies should explicitly encourage authenticity, highlighting the different paths to success in their organizations. 
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Idea conceived

  • September 2017

Idea posted

  • October 2017

DOI number



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