#1 issue to solve: the gender confidence gap

As the efforts to reach gender parity grow, more and more ‘gaps’ come to the surface. There is the pay gap, the career gap, the healthy movement gap, the chores gap, and so on. Lately I’ve come across articles about the gender confidence gap, and how to tackle it. I’m adding mine.

Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

A recent piece about confidence training argues that the differences between women and men are much less than we assume. Apparently convention still has it that women are less suitable to work in leading positions. Reason? Because we are too nice, or give in too early, which makes us poor negotiators compared to men. Or because we lack confidence and are too risk-averse. Or because we don’t work hard enough, valuing our family more than our career. And even because we’re physically smaller. Many of these beliefs are affirmed because of the ways, the method women get rated at work. For example, when, in their performance appraisal new mothers who took maternity leave are compared to colleagues who worked full year round.


Apparently, at the start men and women are equally confident (27-28%) that they will reach top management, and more women (43%) aspire to do so than men (34%). Within five years the men who aspire this are still at the same level, whereas the level of aspiring women has dropped to 16%, and only 13% is still confident that she will (25% of men). Women cite three main factors for this decline: as they gain experience they see themselves fit less and less into the mould of a successful manager as defined by their company; their supervisors failed to support their ambitions; and there were too few female role models.

And then of course women get more often interrupted than men, their ideas are often attributed to men, women get harassed more often than men, and penalised more severely for mistakes if they have a job traditionally held by men. How good is that for one’s confidence?

Authors use these arguments to claim that all these are the result of social convention rather than engrained differences between women and men. I beg to disagree. It is true that women tend to want to make sure everybody feels good, and what is so wrong with that? Without proper training this may make us less tough negotiators, but it also contributes to a more agreeable work atmosphere, which makes everybody more productive. We do tend to be risk-averse. In my practice I see how this can make a person go round in circles without taking action, but at the same time companies with more women at the top have been shown to perform better in the stock exchange.

No doubt the system is broken, but at the current pace of change it will take 170 years before we catch up. We can’t just sit around and wait. Study after study has shown that women on the whole have less inner confidence and lower self-esteem than men. Whether this is the result, or the origin of our disadvantage, it is, I believe, the most urgent problem we need to, and can work on in workshops, trainings or one-on-one coaching. With strong inner confidence women will accelerate the change by going for their full potential with ease and joy, and in sufficient numbers to make that change last.

What we value

While we’re at it, I would like to open up the discussion about another gap: that in the definition of success. It clearly still does not take account of feminine traits. What is valuable for us apparently is seen as inferior by men (and therefore by the whole of society), possibly because it’s hard to put a price on. But maybe we should start doing that. If the best schools in the world are able to charge thousands of dollars or euros to educate privileged children, should we not also value the time and effort of mothers or fathers who stay at home to give their children a solid base for future growth?

During the first three years a child’s blueprint for life is formed. The brain is hardly developed at birth, and the neural pathways formed in those early years will determine how successful, balanced, happy and healthy people become as grown-ups. Adverse childhood experiences are a pretty reliable predictor of mental problems, drug abuse and criminality, but also of specific health problems. A childhood doesn’t have to be traumatic to have a negative impact. When my own daughter was at nursery school, I could pick out those children who were not looked after by a parent, but by a nanny. There was something uneasy about them, something insecure. Nowadays I meet the grown-up version in my practice: women and some men, whose parents were both workaholics, and who grew up with the sense that they always came second.

I’m not arguing that mothers should not work. Sorry, make that ‘do paid work’. But I strongly believe we need to invest as a society in a few feminine traits, like that of caring. We could start with longer parental leave (for both), but other things need to be done to make sure all of our children have the foundations for a good future. What do you think? Please share your ideas in the comments.

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