Is Lack of Confidence Holding Back Women's Careers?

Last Updated Oct 19, 2011 3:25 PM EDT

Here's a headline guaranteed to get people's attention--or ire: Four Ways Women Stunt Their Careers Unintentionally. The post appears on the Harvard Business Review web site, and it's written by consultants Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath, and Mary Davis Holt, of Flynn Heath Holt Leadership.

The consultants have four nuggets of advice for career women, all of which derive from their belief that women are less confident in their professional abilities than men are. There's just one problem--aside from the fact that I just don't believe women are as timid as the HBR post makes them out to be. A recent study by the not-for-profit Catalyst shows that much of this well-meaning (and conventional) advice just isn't very effective.
Low confidence?
First, the bit about being less confident. The writers cite a survey of British managers from the Institute of Leadership and Management. It was released in 2011 and found:

  • Men are more confident than women. About 70% of men have high or very high levels of self-confidence, compared to about half the women surveyed.
  • Women are more prone to self-doubt. About half the women said they had feelings of self-doubt about their performance and career, but only 31% of men admitted to this.
  • Women are more cautious in applying for jobs. Some 20% of men said they would apply to a job even if they didn't entirely meet the qualifications in the job description, compared to 14% of women.
The consultants then draw from their own experience in training and coaching, as well as the more than 360 degree reviews they've read throughout the years. Here's their advice--and what Catalyst research shows.

Don't be so modest. This is the one and only area in which the Catalyst research shows that it makes sense for ambitious women to step up their efforts. Catalyst asked women which strategies they used to further their career, from networking to taking on stretch assignments and making sure their contributions are known. Making sure you get credit for your work is the only strategy that was associated with higher salaries. As the partners at Flynn Heath Holt Leadership write, "While modesty is a nice character trait, it's naïve to believe that your boss, your clients, or your colleagues will recognize your accomplishments if you fly under the radar." Yep.

Ask for Big Assignments. The folks at Flynn Heath Holt write, "Women fail to get promoted because they fail to step up and apply. It feels personally risky to step-up and ask for a big job or assignment-but there's really no other way."

Well, there better be another way, because Catalyst finds that women do ask for stretch assignments, and that it doesn't help their careers. Of the MBAs polled by Catalyst, more slightly more women than men said they "ask for a variety of work assignments to increase my knowledge and skills." So women do ask!

Yet, Catalyst found that taking on these assignments didn't do anything for women's career advancement.

Get Access to Power. The consultants say women need to make more of an effort to rub shoulders with the higher-ups in their company. Catalyst finds this does help women get promoted-but it doesn't get them any more money. I don't know about you, but I want money, not just a swanky title and a ton of work.

Failure to speak up. Catalyst didn't ask the men and women in its survey how likely they were to put their hands up at meetings. I'm thinking maybe they assumed that someone who put tens of thousands of dollars into getting an MBA wouldn't be shy about putting it to use.

Letting pretty much everyone-- except women--off the hook
Flynn, Heath and Holt conclude by saying:

What we've found in our work is that career momentum for women is not about adding job skills but about changing everyday thinking and behaviors. We don't think the majority of high-performing women need to make major changes. Small adjustments in how they think and act can improve not only how confident they seem, but how confident they feel.
I would love to agree. It makes everything so easy! Women just need to speak up a bit more, be more assertive, and gender disparities in pay and promotion will vanish. But after reading the Catalyst research, I don't think it's that simple. And I'm sick of hearing that women are timid. Don't any of these consultants and researchers live in the same world I do--where women speak up, get things done, and generally kick it right along with the guys?

Worse, this whole line of thinking-Women just need to assert themselves!-lets society, companies and even the most egalitarian men off the hook. If career advancement were all about women being more assertive, this conversation would have ended decades ago.

Do you think women just need to step up to the plate? Or is there something else going on here?


Image courtesy of flickr user andi.vs.zf
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.