International Women’s Day 2016 Women in the workplace: confidence gap or confidence trick?

Media releases
Topics Gender

Step up; speak out; come forward. Time and time again, women in the workplace are told that it’s our lack of confidence that’s keeping us from the corner office, the C-suite and the big bonuses. But will more confidence smash the glass ceiling and shrink the pay gap or is something else going on? In the lead up to International Women’s Day on 8 March, DCA shines a spotlight on women and the ‘confidence gap’.

Lisa Annese, DCA’s CEO said that it’s a very common belief that women lack confidence or ambition in the workplace but research shows it’s much more complicated than this.

“Most women begin their careers with comparable levels of confidence as their male peers. They also have similar career aspirations. Over time though, male-centric leadership models and workplace cultures inadvertently promote men and penalise women for being confident, assertive or ambitious.

“What is clear is that simply saying women need to be more confident or ambitious just isn’t going to fix the problem. Gender biases can be hidden within many organisational processes, especially within talent management and remuneration systems, and can adversely impact women’s career progression. Gender biases can also be hidden within many people’s views and decision-making – and that holds true for women as well as men.

“If organisations are asking women to step up in a system that is biased against them, then it will take more than confidence for them to actually succeed,” said Lisa.

There are a lot of myths and misinformation out there about women and confidence in the workplace that can mask underlying problems. DCA has looked at the evidence to help organisations sort out the myths from the facts.

Myth 1: Women lack confidence at work

Fact: Research shows that when women and men are starting off in their careers, they have comparable leadership ambitions and there are no significant differences in their career aspirations[i]. This however changes as they progress through their career. Women report a 60% decrease in ambition and a 50% decrease in confidence to reach top management. Men on the other hand, report no change in their aspiration and only a 10% decrease in their confidence to reach the top jobs. Why does this happen? Over time, women with growing career experience report not being able to imagine themselves fitting into the ‘typical stereotype of success’, not receiving important sponsorship from influential leaders, and not being able to access the work and career flexibility they need to[ii] [iii] [iv]. These factors combine to wear down women’s confidence and aspirations over time.

Myth 2: Women don’t have leadership presence

Fact: One of the great leadership myths is that the ‘best leaders have executive presence’. In fact this idea is rooted in gender bias as traits such as confidence, authority, decisiveness, and assertiveness are more commonly associated with men so when we ‘think manager’ we in fact ‘think male’[v]. A woman’s voice pitch, height and physical build can all interfere with perceptions of their authority[vi]. When men use proactive career tactics such as seeking out high-profile projects, networking with leaders or making their accomplishments more visible, they are more likely to be rewarded for this behaviour[vii]. Women on the other hand are not – in fact, the research shows they are more often than not penalised[viii]. Why is this? Gender biases in the workplace can unintentionally be embedded into organisational systems and culture and exclude those that do not fit the traditional male leadership model. Women are not making it through to senior leadership positions not because they are not confident enough, but because they face systemic barriers preventing them from being promoted.

Myth 3: Women don’t negotiate for pay rises

Fact: Studies show that while women are less likely to request a pay rise than men, there is a good reason why. It has been found that women are penalised for initiating negotiations for higher compensation far more than men are. Although attempting to negotiate pay can make both men and women appear less nice, researchers have repeatedly found that it’s only women who subsequently suffer a penalty[ix] [x]. They are often perceived as being less easy to work with, be it as co-workers, subordinates, or bosses, and this is particularly so when people directly observe women engaging in salary negotiations. Implicit gender biases mean that when women stand up for themselves and assert their position strongly in negotiations, it can backfire for them.

Myth 4: Women choose to opt out

Fact: Survey data and other research suggest that when high-achieving, highly educated professional women leave their jobs after becoming mothers, only a small number do so because they prefer to devote themselves exclusively to motherhood. The vast majority leave reluctantly and as a last resort, because they find themselves in unfulfilling roles with few prospects for advancement. The message that they are no longer considered ‘players‘ is communicated in various, sometimes subtle ways: they may have been stigmatized for taking advantage of flexible working options or reduced schedules, passed over for high-profile assignments, or removed from projects they once led.[xi] [xii] [xiii]

Myth 5: It’s just a matter of time before the problem will be fixed

Fact: Currently in Australia, only 15.4% of CEO positions and 27.4% of key management personnel positions are held by women[xiv]. Relying on the pipeline to channel women to the top jobs is problematic because the pipeline is both slow, and works better for men. If we look at the last ten years of data in Australia on the progression of women into CEO roles and extrapolate that forward, it would take another 270 years until we reach gender parity[xv]. So the rate of change is glacial to say the least. The pipeline also works better for men with studies tracking high potential MBA graduates showing that from the first role onwards, women are behind men in promotion, pay and career satisfaction[xvi].

DCA’s top five tips for getting women to the top

  1. Introduce gender conscious rather than gender blind initiatives. These can include recruitment programs aimed at women, sponsorship programs (see below), or the introduction of gender targets.
  2. Implement sponsorship programs for women. High-potential women are often already mentored, but under sponsored when compared to their male peers. Sponsorship is more likely to produce improved outcomes for women because women can be penalised for self-promoting behaviour. A sponsor can advocate on their behalf and to subvert this commonly held unconscious bias.
  3. Address gender bias. Many organisations may be unknowingly practicing gender bias in recruitment and promotion processes. These biases can be both unconscious and conscious and need to be identified and addressed. Individuals can also practice gender biases in their attitudes, behaviours and decision making and organisations may have gender bias embedded into their culture, policies and practices.
  4. Don’t rely on the ‘squeaky wheel’. Look closely at performance and outcomes when it comes to promotion and remuneration, rather than rewarding those who speak the loudest or put in the most ‘face-time’.
  5. Move beyond ‘think leader = think male’. Great leaders can come in many different forms.


[i] Bain & Co, 2014, Everyday moments of truth: Frontline managers are key to woman’s career aspirations

[ii] Fouad, Singh, Fitzpatrick & Liu, 2012, Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering

[iii] Hewlett, Peraino, Sherbin & Sumberg, 2011, The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling

[iv] Snyder, 2014, Why women leave tech: It’s the culture and it’s not because ‘math is hard’

[v] Schein, 2001, A Global Look at Psychological Barriers to Women’s Progress in Management

[vi] US Centre for Talent Innovation, 2013, Executive Presence and

[vii] Carter & Silva, 2011, The Myth of The Ideal Worker: Does Doing All The Right Things Really Get Women Ahead?

[viii] Konnikova, 2014, Lean Out: The Dangers for Women Who Negotiate

[ix] Bowles & Babcock, 2012, How Can Women Escape the Compensation Negotiation Dilemma? Relational Accounts Are One Answer

[x] Oleklans, 2012, A lose-lose proposition: what’s really happening when women negotiate

[xi] Harvard Business Review, 2014,

[xii] Bain & Company, 2011, What stops women from reaching the top? Confronting the tough issues

[xiii] Center for Talent Innovation, 2012, The Sponsor Effect UK. 

[xiv] Workplace Gender Equality Agency, 2015, Australia’s gender equality scorecard

[xv] University of Queensland, 2011, Navigating CEO appointments: do Australia’s top male and female CEOs differ in how they made it to the top?

[xvi] Carter & Silva, 2010, Pipeline’s Broken Promise