For Women, Self-confidence Not Enough for Workplace Success


Well-documented barriers to organizational influence and career growth exist for women. In my research together with Prof. Margarita Mayo (IE Business School) and Natalia Karelaia (INSEAD), we study gender differences in self-confidence appearance. Drawing from a multisource, time-lag data from a multinational software development company that employs over 4,000 people worldwide, we studied supervisor perceptions of how confident their employees appear to be in their ability to successfully complete their job responsibilities.

Our results show that in male-typed positions, job performance and self-confidence appearance go hand in hand for both men and women. In particular, successful performance makes both men and women appear self-confident in the eyes of their supervisors. However, we also found that self-confidence appearance is not equally rewarded for men and women. Where the self-confidence appearance of high-performing men directly enabled their influence in the organization, this was only true for high-performing women who also had a high prosocial orientation.

One (arguably simplistic) implication of our results is to offer different advice to women and men on how to progress in their careers. For men, the take-away would be: “Do not worry about being prosocial, if you perform you will get ahead anyway.” For women the message would be: “If you want to be influential and thus be able to progress, make sure you perform and also invest time in helping others and being a good citizen.” Indeed, performance reviews for women contain nearly twice as much language about being prosocial, with terms such as warm, empathetic, helpful, and dedicated to others, than for men.

This obligation to others, either explicitly or not, may place women at a clear disadvantage to men who can focus exclusively on their individual objectives. Moreover, in terms of organizational consequences, non-prosocial attitudes from promoted men may imprint organizational culture with non-cooperative values. Thus one (arguably fairer) implication is to suggest that organizations use procedures and checks to eliminate such biases and that they make sure the responsibility for creating diversity-friendly and fair workplaces are not exclusively placed on women.

*Based on a study conducted by researchers Laura Guillén (ESMT Berlin), Margarita Mayo (IE Business School), and Natalia Karelaia (INSEAD) on gender differences and self-confidence appearance.

Leadership and Change

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