Self Advocacy & Confidence Gap

The gap between the self-assurance of men and women in professional settings that can often prove detrimental to the career advancement of women. Research suggests this confidence differential stems from women facing negative reactions to the same behavior that in men would be valued or ignored. [Harvard Business Review]


My team was preparing for our final presentation – three female, three male, and we had to select two of us to present. All three men self-nominated, and all three women agreed that any would do an excellent job. As they began discussing, however, one man interjected that he thought I should present instead of him, not only so that we would represent our team’s gender balance, but also because he thought I was a stronger presenter than him. I was flattered and reminded that I could have asserted myself at the start, but I, (like many women) rarely "self-nominate" myself for any position. 

Another Perspective

It took me about a month to feel comfortable really speaking up in class, and when I talked to other women in our class, we noticed that, across cohorts, women are less likely to be the first to speak up and generally take longer to warm up than the men in the class. I can't speak for everyone else, but for me, I know this was rooted in a lack of confidence in my preparation for business school and anxiety that others wouldn't value my contributions. 

Facts and Data

  • Based upon data from HP, women applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the new position, while men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements. [The Atlantic]

  • Laszlo Bock, Google’s former head of HR, described his first experiment: he asked prospective employees to rate their abilities from one to five. After looking at self-ratings and subsequent performances of those who were hired, he concluded two things. One, that men who rated themselves fives should never be hired due to debilitatingly inflated views of themselves; and two, that women who rated themselves fives should absolutely be hired because “there’s societal pressure around women being self-effacing and more modest. For a woman to say she’s a five, she’s going to be amazing.” [Financial Times]

Take Action

  • There are many ways to mitigate this confidence gap in institutional ways. At Google, they found female engineers were not applying for self-promotions as much as men were. In response, they simply sent an email explaining that this was the case along with two studies that showed that women were less likely to self-nominate but were just as capable, and sometimes moreso. The application rate for women shot up, so they continued to send the email. As further proof this nudge itself was causing the better results, when they once forgot to send it, the applications for women dropped sharply, showing the nudge did matter. [Washington Post]

  • Encourage female colleagues to believe in themselves, take on stretch assignments, and take smart risks. Often, all it takes is providing more transparency about what these risks entail.

  • Remember that hesitation to jump into things and attempts to “follow the rules” do not equate to lack of ability.

  • Realize there is a thin line between recognizing the reality of self-limiting conditioning and blaming women for factors outside of their control. The confidence gap comes from women facing negative consequences for their behavior more than men do, not from women being naturally less confident.