Understanding the Gender Confidence Gap

women-in-businessAs a woman in business, I see intelligent, highly skilled women suffer from a lack of confidence more than I like to admit. Of course I also see men who could use a confidence boost of their own, but not to the same degree or ubiquity that I see inspiring and otherwise successful women walking around like their contributions to the world are somehow less important than they actually are.

In recent years, there has been a lot of important attention given to the various inequalities experienced between men and women. From the cost of a razor to how much women are paid, inequality confronts us in ways big and small every day. Most recently, the media has been focusing specifically on how women are seen in the workplace as opposed to men. Women have been outed for communicating differently than men, saying sorry too often, and being seen as more or less intelligent depending on what we wear.

Seeing this pervasive lack of confidence has me wondering: is it just our culture, or are there other places in the world where, despite the inequalities that may or may not be present, women feel more empowered to feel openly confident? Discouragingly, in a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychologyresearchers found that there is a disparity in self-confidence between men and women, not just in the U.S., but universally.

The eight-year study conducted by Wiebke Bleidorn, Ph.D. from the University of California with the help of her co-researchers looks at data from over 985,000 men and women across 48 countries. The study includes participants from Argentina and the Netherlands to France and Thailand, and researchers asked them all to rate the same simple phrase: “I see myself as someone who has high self-esteem.”

Participants gave their answer using a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (disagree strongly) to 5 (agree strongly.) The study found that across the board, regardless of culture or country, men have higher self-esteem than women.

“We were really surprised by the remarkable degree of similarity across cultures,” Bleidorn explained. “In nearly all cultures, men have higher self-esteem. But the difference lies in themagnitude of the gap.” In industrialized Western countries like the U.S., for example, the gap is more pronounced than in non-Western, developing countries. The gap between women’s and men’s self-esteem actually grows in more developed, egalitarian countries. In other words, as a country evolves to become more developed, the average man’s self esteem goes up while women’s goes down. Not what most of us would have expected.

While Bleidorn’s research didn’t tackle explaining this phenomenon, she did come up with some theories. The first was that it could be our genetics. “Most personality traits have a genetic basis, so there’s reason to assume it might be at least partly genetically driven,” Bleidorn hypothesized. “But you don’t measure people’s physiology to get their self-esteem — you just ask them. So we don’t know.”

Her second theory had to do more with psychology. “I can speculate that in Western societies, women are more likely to compare themselves to men. Men tend to have higher-status positions and higher salaries, for example, so the comparison is less favorable for women.” Because thriving, developed countries provide more positions of greater power, status, and money, the comparison women can make between themselves and higher status men (like our predominantly male boardrooms, for example) can be more stark. To put some data behind this, The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report found that women in the U.S. earn approximately two-thirds of what men do for similar work. It’s easy to imagine why that drastic comparison could be more psychologically damaging than living in an underdeveloped area where the gap between power, status, and money are less drastic.

So now we are left with a somewhat disturbing question: could it be that living in a more egalitarian society, where we compete on an ever more equal playing field, be working against women in terms of their self-esteem?

Let’s look at how is this lack of self-esteem might be affecting us in our day to day lives. Maybe it helps explain why women are less likely to ask for a raise or less likely to negotiate their job offers. Maybe it’s why women only make up 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, even though they make up 50.8 percent of the population and have actually surpassed men on many educational levels.

While confidence obviously won’t act as a silver bullet that allows women to transcend into total equality with men, it does have the potential to empower more women to call out discriminatory biases when they see them, ask for exactly what they want, and take more risks in their career. As women continue to move up the ladder, more role models, mentors, sponsors and inspiration for women will follow, making it easier for future generations of women to go after their dreams with as much confidence and gusto as any man.

Jane Marquardt is a business woman, activist and philanthropist in Salt Lake City, Utah. To learn more about her live and career, please visit her main website.

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