Woman working on laptop

Is your job killing your confidence?

With women across the world standing up and demanding equal pay in the workplace, much attention has been drawn to the disparity between the opportunities that await men and women once they enter the world of work. But with 2017's Fortune 500 list - the annual rundown of the largest US industrial corporations - featuring more female CEOs than ever, it would be easy to assume that women are now reaching further and hitting harder. Yet, a report published in the Harvard Business Review has shown that the truth is somewhat different, in that after just two years of employment, women’s confidence and ambition actually drops significantly. And the likelihood is that it will affect their entire career progression.

Over the past 60 years, the makeup of the US workforce has changed dramatically, with the number of women in work having almost doubled, from 34 per cent to 57 per cent in 2016. This shift has also been reflected in college admissions, with the number of women enrolled in undergraduate courses having consistently outnumbered men since the 1970s. Yet, women account for only 25 percent of executive and senior-level officials and managers; in the G7 as a whole, over 40 per cent of businesses employ no women at senior level. It’s true that career breaks related to pregnancy and raising children account for some of the disparity between the career paths of men and women - after all, it is still women that, by and large, soak up the majority of childcare responsibilities. But it is not as simple as that.

Woman working at a desk Credit: Pexels

Increasingly, the divide is also being attributed to differing attitudes to work in men and women, namely that women don’t feel as comfortable pushing themselves into those senior roles. A study carried out by management consulting firm Bain & Company quizzed more than 1,000 men and women about their job aspirations and confidence. They found that while women in their early career stages had more ambition than their male counterparts, after just two years, “aspiration and confidence plummeted 60 per cent and nearly 50 per cent, respectively.”

Interestingly, this was the case regardless of whether or not the woman was a wife or a mother. Men’s confidence and ambition, on the contrary, only dropped by an average of 10 per cent. Even those women in senior management roles, the Sheryl Sandbergs of the world so to speak, who are already smashing glass ceilings, reported having lower confidence than men of equal standing. Almost double the number of men believed they would make “top management” status at some point during their career.

So what causes this disparity between women and men? Well, there is a strong case to be made that the confidence gap between men and women exists long before starting work. A report by Columbia Business School in New York, based on a study of students, estimated that men experience an “honest overconfidence” in their own abilities of about 30 per cent, whereas women are considerably more likely to undersell themselves. But it is notable how much this confidence gap is exacerbated by the workplace.

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When asked by the Bain & Company survey to rate how well they felt that they matched up to the typical idea of “success” and the “ideal worker” at their companies, men and women gave fairly equal figures early on. However, just a few years later, women had dropped by 15 per cent, and men by just nine per cent. Men, it seems, were more comfortable with the idea that they could achieve this image. For women, a lack of role models (which makes sense really, given the shortfall of female bosses) and absence of supervisory support made a big impact.

So what can be done to help women get their confidence back? The results of this survey seem to show that genuine support, positive reinforcement and having women in the workplace to look up to all make a major difference. For their part, employers must be sure to make clear what exactly an “ideal employee” looks like, and to be doubly conscious that they are judging male and female employees equally. And if they do, they’ll be rewarded too - six separate global studies, including one by finance group Goldman Sachs, have shown that companies employing high numbers of women outperform their competitors in every measure.

In some ways, the results of the survey are nothing new and it’s only natural that the longer you work for, they less bright-eyed and bushy-tailed you’re likely to be, whether male or female - after all, the stereotype of getting old and cynical exists for a reason. But that this disparity between male and female confidence exists to such an extent, and so early on in their career paths, is worrying. Let’s just hope that the wave of girl power sweeping the world right now gives us all a much-needed boost, because it's clear that women feeling confident and ambitious in the workplace benefits everyone.