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The role of mentoring in uncovering the misconceptions of the 'confidence gap'

07 August 2019

Siobhan Mitten, Business Development Manager for Strategic Accounts

Through our partnership with The Prince's Trust, LGT Vestra offers employees the opportunity to mentor young people in local schools. I have been involved in this initiative since the start of the year, working with a group of mentors that supports 16 young women.

Our initial focus for the programme was to explore the concept of 'role models' and the positive impacts that they can have. As a group, we identified the positive traits role models have, be that influencing behaviours, providing the motivation to uncover untapped potential or even addressing areas of weakness. During the programme, we looked to build the gaps that the young women had identified as needing development. Most commonly, confidence. One particular request we received was assistance in writing a ‘personal statement’ for their CV. This statement requires self-promotion of ones skills and abilities. As I have not had experience with mentoring males of the same age, it made me wonder if they would also be requesting help in both confidence and promoting themselves, or whether this was indicative of young women.

Although it appeared apparent to me that not all girls in the class required lessons in confidence, I wondered why the young women felt they lacked this characteristic. I questioned if it is a social norm that women, from a young age, presume they have this set back in 'being confident'?

How important is confidence in determining success?

The 'confidence gap' is the concept that women feel less self-assured than their male counterparts are, a disparity that according to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology is said to hold up universally1. Although performance between genders does not differ in quality, studies have concluded that men tend to overestimate their abilities and subsequent performance, whereas women tend to underestimate both2. This has previously been recognised as a contributing factor to justify pay gaps, women being overlooked for promotions and feeling discouraged from applying for leadership roles. If this justification were valid, the solution would be simple: women should exert the confidence of a man and equality will follow.

Conversely, a study by Harvard Business Review has uncovered that women, on average, are equally as confident as men, discounting the concept of the confidence gap3. Whilst the study evidences that confidence is in fact gender-neutral, the consequences of appearing confident are not. The study suggests that it is the display of confidence that is important.

In order for women to be perceived in the most attractive light, social norms dictate that they must balance confidence with modesty. If they are too modest, their achievements are overlooked. If they are too confident, the 'backlash effect' comes into play. This is the effect psychologists describe as a response to not adhering to gender norms, meaning that confident women are subsequently penalised for associated 'arrogant' behaviour4. Confident men are expected to boast about their achievements whereas women are expected to temper this with femineity i.e concern and compassion, instilling a prosocial (double) standard5. It is not always the actual backlash that is the problem, but the fear women have in how they are perceived due to this 'backlash effect' that can prevent them from self-promoting their valid achievements.

What can be done to counteract these social norms to make positive changes for the future?

The problem the concept of the 'confidence gap' creates is that women then believe it is their individual duty to close this gap and the burden falls solely on females. However, the solution seems to lie beyond their control. I believe it is a collective effort including mentor programmes at grassroots that is important in order to normalise self-promotion among young women within our society. Encouraging them to speak up about their achievements, the value they bring, and to be free of both 'backlash' and the associated fear is a start.

In terms of incorporating these behaviours in the workplace, Jessi L. Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who has studied gender norms, recommends “start each meeting by asking everyone to share one thing they’ve achieved since you last met." She explains "it could be big or small; it might be work related or personal. The idea is that everyone gets a turn, and that everyone gets to define what counts as an accomplishment.”6

Workplaces can improve supportive policy and culture through inclusive initiatives. Our internal diversity and inclusion steering committee #included are a driving force in acknowledging these types of challenges. The committee has been integral to championing change by implementing various programmes such as The Prince's Trust placement, promoting gender parity not only across the business, but also within the local community. Empowering young individuals to aspire to work within our industry is a long-term strategy with the aim of cultivating a successful and diverse working environment.

I initially participated in the mentor programme with the intention of giving back to the community and not only provide support, but expose young women to the opportunities that are most definitely within their reach. In turn, it exposed me to the areas of our society we need to develop in an attempt to achieve true gender equality, and ultimately, a better working environment with limitless opportunity for all, irrespective of gender.

 

Sources

  1. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 629–645
  2. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/05/the-confidence-gap/359815/
  3. https://hbr.org/2018/03/is-the-confidence-gap-between-men-and-women-a-myth
  4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191308508000051
  5. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/09/women-workplace-confidence-gap/570772/
  6. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/09/women-workplace-confidence-gap/570772/