I’ve always known in the back of my mind that men are more confident in the workplace than women. But when I ran some end of year appraisals with my team in Kuala Lumpur, this fact jumped out at me like a dark inky stain on an unblemished page.
Now the team are doing the same job, using the same skills set and are roughly at the same competency, but it amazed me to see just how differently they saw themselves.
I asked them to rate themselves from 1 to 5 (5 being excellent, 1 unacceptable) on a variety of different criteria, from teamwork to punctuality, from knowledge to taking the initiative. And all the men, without exception, rated themselves ‘5’ on at least four out of the ten criteria. How did the women rate themselves? One of them gave themselves a solitary ‘5’, for punctuality.
A glaring example was a young guy who had joined the team just 6 months ago. He rated himself a ‘5’ for knowledge, despite the fact that one of the female members of my team, who had been around for three times as long as him, rated herself just a ‘4’ and others who had been around twice as long, thought they were only a ‘3’.
Needless to say, the guy was impressive, but certainly not up to a 5 just yet. And also needless to say, the female member who rated herself a ‘4’ was a ‘5’, and those who had rated themselves a ‘3’ were instead a ‘4’.
Managing a team in an Asian environment as an expat with little managerial experience in a western one, I often question whether what I’m seeing is unique to Asia, or something reflective of women worldwide. Is this crisis of confidence what’s stopping them from achieving their best or placing their ambitions first?
Believing in yourself pays off
I decided to dig a little deeper and after some research, I came across an Accenture study from 2011 across 30 countries that seemed to back up my theory: that confidence and career are inextricably linked. In fact, when asked, the number one attribute for career advancement was self-confidence.
And it seems that believing in yourself can pay off, literally: for both men and women, out of half of the respondents who had dared to ask for a pay rise, more than 75% of them had actually received one.
Gen Y-ers in trouble?
However, if you look at Gen Y-ers, men versus women, there’s a lot to be worried about. Only 45% of Gen Y women asked for a raise, compared to a massive 61% of Gen Y men. Naturally enough, that means that 41% of Gen Y women feel underpaid: not a conducive environment for trying your best.
Not only that, only 54% of Gen Y women proactively manage their career, compared to 64% of Gen Y men. I saw that too, in my appraisals: tellingly, none of the women talked to me about their career aspirations, or where I thought they could go in the company in the future. Only their male colleagues did that.
Those are the global numbers; I would bet my bottom dollar that the numbers for Asian female Gen Y-ers are even lower than that. So it looks like Gen Y women could be in dire straits when it comes to career management, despite regularly outperforming boys at school and outnumbering them at many universities.
Do women lack confidence or ambition?
Is not mentioning career aspirations a sign of a chronic lack of self-confidence, or rather a chronic lack of ambition? A global Randstad study for 2013 on the workplace found that 59% of men aspire to a leadership position, whereas only 50% of women do. So on the surface, it appears that women, and Gen Y women in particular, are suffering from a deficiency in both.
But the link between these two, self-confidence and ambition, is much deeper and more visceral than that.
In 2004, when many Gen Y-ers were hitting universities worldwide (including myself), Anna Fels, a psychiatrist and a faculty member at Cornell University’s Weill Medical College in New York, wrote a paper, “Do women lack ambition?”. Her answer? Probably, but it’s not their fault.
She explains that ambition has two elements: recognition and mastery of skill. As you learn, the recognition you receive gets you past the next stage and pushes you further to master the skill.
For a child, that could be the ambition to take your first steps and walk across the room. With every step, stumble and bottom-bump on the floor comes a mountain-ful of praise from their parents, encouraging the child to try again and take another step, full of self-confidence. Then another, then another, until they’re walking across the floor with no bottom-bumps at all.
Imagine if no-one praised that child at all for making the effort to haul themselves up onto their feet and take those teetering steps. Would they be as motivated to make the effort? I’d hazard a guess that their progress would be a lot slower.
For an adult, ambition is a more conscious effort and takes motivation to push through (and grit). That motivation comes down again to two factors: how likely you are to succeed and what recognition will be received as a result of achieving your ambition.
A******n is a dirty word
For an adult woman, ambition is almost a dirty word, to be whispered when in the presence of others, associated with self-aggrandizement and ego. Many women, instead of accepting praise for tasks well done attribute it to external circumstances, not innate skills and proficiency. It was all teamwork, it was nothing, it was sheer luck, I was in the right place at the right time, they claim.
Would you hear a man say that? I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a man put his success down to sheer luck.
Fels has a theory on why ambitious women are something so unsavoury to society. In a classic study, the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI), men and women had to rank desirable traits for femininity and masculinity. The two major themes of femininity were giving and recognition. These two elements are impossible alone and posit women always in relation to others. If women therefore speak up in the workplace, they are seen as unfeminine – a ball buster, the office bitch, someone from the Meryl Streep of the Devil Wears Prada-ilk.
The same is true historically. Suffragettes who questioned the status quo were accused of upsetting the morals of the day and caricatured as unmarriable, childless spinsters. Even Gloria Steinem, feminist extraordinaire who finally married in 2000, was mocked by the media as someone who had given in to society’s demands to become a wife, the assumption being that she could not simultaneously be a wife and speak up for women’s rights. A feminist who had cast off the traditional feminine qualities was being openly ridiculed that she could hope to have a dual existence, as if marrying should somehow diminish her voice and right to speak.
Masculinity, no surprises there, is not seen in the context of relationships, or providing something to someone else. Instead, their traits are forceful, self-reliant, assertive and… ambitious. A word woefully lacking as a desirable trait for femininity.
No recognition = no ambition
How does that relate to women’s ambition? Well, for a woman’s ambition to flourish, she needs recognition for her skills.
A study in the UK by Head and Shoulders in 2013 found that 24% of women lack the confidence to highlight the tasks that they had done well. And remember that Accenture study I mentioned earlier? Well, over a third of women described their career paths as stagnant. Hardly a great feeling of recognition with which to fuel their ambition and keep them ascending ever higher.
This lack of recognition, this persistent bias against speaking up and getting what she deserves, creates a woman who has less and less confidence in herself. She no longer has the recognition to fuel her mastery of skills. Those two factors for motivation, how likely you are to succeed and what recognition will be received as a result of achieving your ambition, come into play.
So a Millennial, supposedly a go-getting, empowered woman who firmly believes that women are equal and capable in the workplace, begins the descent into undervaluing her skills, both externally and internally, as she does not receive recognition.
When that critical time comes for choosing between ambition and being a parent or partner, downsizing her ambition becomes the default choice.
The end result is that men with 50% of the skills required for a job will put themselves forward and bag the role, whilst a woman with 100% of the required skills will be riddled by anxiety and self-doubt and choose to stay in the shadows: after all, she won’t get any recognition once she reaches that role, so what’s the point? her subconscious reasons.
However, Fels does offer a glimmer of hope to this gloomy picture: “Ambition isn’t something that, once extinguished, is gone forever. It can be reignited and blossom once more. And not a moment too soon.”
So what can we do to combat this vicious circle where a lack of self-confidence saps our ambition? Fels suggests actively claiming our recognition, rejecting the traditional stereotype of femininity and taking opportunities that come along to demonstrate our mastery – publicly. And if that’s too daunting, to make connections with people who can help us voice up our achievements, or even get these people to voice our achievements for us.
Whilst I was writing, I asked my younger sister (who’s almost a Gen Z-er) what she thought. She came up with a charming theory: maybe the men with 50% of the skills who are applying for these jobs just aren’t as rational as women, in a similar way to how they refuse to ask for directions when lost. They just want to do it their own way, so the other 50% of the skills? Well maybe they just think, ‘I can do without them!’.
Whatever or wherever this assuredness is coming from, it’s working for the men – and against the ladies.