Confidence in the workplace: Examining the ‘confidence gap’

We are conditioned to admire those who are seemingly self-assured. We are encouraged to share our views. We are often told to have more confidence in ourselves and taught to believe that if we act with determination and authority, we will be more successful in our endeavors. But, what does confidence mean in today’s workplace and does it actually pay to be ‘confident’?

Over the past few years, the idea of confidence in the workplace and the role it plays in a person’s career trajectory has become a focal point, especially in how it varies for men and women. According to one study from Advances in Physiology Education, men tend to overestimate their intelligence and academic abilities, while women tend to underestimate both. Yet, the quality of performance between men and women is essentially the same. This disparity in self-concept is what, some say, ultimately leads to under participation from women in academic and professional settings, particularly in STEM fields, and over participation from men.

Even though I have reached the level of corporate scientist, the highest technical rank a scientist can achieve at 3M, I am not immune from feeling anxious. Whenever I take on a significant role, my irrational inner voice, like a well-honed muscle memory triggered by years of practice, surfaces to unhelpfully inform me: “I don’t think you can do it!” It’s like an involuntary reflex; an uninvited guest that invades your mind-space before you can even register it’s on its way. And, voila. At that moment, all your accomplishments, your qualifications, and proven abilities give way to your number one concern: Can I do it?

I’m here to tell you that, yes, you can do it. Here’s what you can do at that moment: Take a breath. Hit pause. Channel your rational voice, the one that reminds you how far you have already come, how you got here and how much more you are capable of. For me, this works because I know myself and my track record: I will bring everything I can bring to make it work. I’ll learn more about the topic than anyone else; I’ll devote more time planning how I’ll approach it than anyone else; I’ll ask the right people, the right questions. In short, I can rely on myself to know I’ll do whatever it takes to optimize success.

I’m sharing this because I know I am not alone. I have had many women mentees, coworkers and teammates over the years who have admitted they’ve felt unsure of themselves when embarking on a new endeavor. Based on observations, I’ve also noticed women tend to vocalize their lack of confidence, at times in self-deprecating ways, more often than our male colleagues. I’ve come to believe that often, we do this just to seek validation and reassurance.

The solution may not be rooted in “learn how to be more confident” so much as “learn how to handle these feelings when they emerge.” A recent study explored how perceptions of a woman’s self-confidence translate into professional success and influence. It found that in professional settings, men who are viewed as confident tend to excel. However, a woman’s self-confidence doesn’t have as much bearing on how successful she is, or how confident she appears to others. Rather, it argues a woman’s influence is determined by perceptions of how warm, nurturing, and social she is (assuming the job capabilities are even). Therefore, encouraging women to be “more confident” could actually hinder their career progression. I’m not suggesting that women should conform to a standard that others impose. But I do think what is critical is to be yourself. Bringing your most authentic self, and being comfortable with who you are, is a form of confidence in of itself.

I recently joined a panel hosted by 3M on World Intellectual Property Day to discuss women in innovation and creativity. The panel touched upon how women inventors hold a small share of patents, and at the current rate of progress, gender equality is estimated to be more than 75 years away. Clearly, we have some work to do in science. But while this number seems high, it is reflective of other statistics. In fact, out of the top Fortune 500 companies, only 24 are led by women. That’s not all; women are 18% less likely to be promoted to management positions. There has been ample research now proving that diverse organizations result in much better business outcomes.

Despite possessing the same skills and ambitions as their male counterparts, women aren’t reaching the same levels of success. Here’s what we can do to help fix this gap:

  • Stop trying to define confidence: Confidence, like many things, is a relative concept that comes in many forms. The definition of confidence and how it is experienced is different for everyone. The gap is in our understanding. What’s important is for women (and men) to stay authentic to themselves. Being comfortable with who you are (and what you are capable of) exudes its own brand of confidence. Just as all men don’t fit into the same confidence box, nor do all women.
  • Recognize people for their abilities, not their characteristics: There is a gap in the way we assess and evaluate. What’s important is to recognize talent and skills in colleagues, rather than confidence levels. Self-help “game plans” to help women overcome their reservations and exude more confidence is missing the point. If we judge women – and men – on their abilities and contributions rather than character traits, we secure a more even playing field.
  • Embrace diversity: Offices and workplaces should strive to eliminate any unfair pay gaps and celebrate inclusivity and diversity of thought and styles, starting at the top. There is a lot to lose if everyone is forced to think and act the same way.

A final thought as we look to the future for women in science and in industry: we can all commit to being conscious of what we are projecting on our children, starting at an early age. If we are unconsciously telling our daughters to act certain ways and rewarding our sons for certain behaviors, we maybe seeding a gender gap from the start.

According to 3M’s State of Science Index, 82% of adults said they would encourage kids to pursue a career in science. Yet, there is still a lack of female representation in the science world. Could this be because we aren’t encouraging our children in the same way? According to the same survey, 43% of women regret not pursuing a science career. It would be great if we could work to change that in the future.

There are many opinions when it comes to confidence and gender in the workplace, but one thing is certain, in many workplaces the current environment tends to be disadvantageous for women. It is up, as leaders and as employees, to us to change that. And it can’t just be women leading the charge. 3M’s Women’s Leadership Forum (WLF) and its ‘Men as Advocates’ Program convenes both men and women to promote diversity in leadership and a great example of employees engaging in conversation to address this important issue. If we work to create environments in which all can succeed, we will move towards a more diverse, productive future. Let’s strive to close the gap on acceptance, understanding, and empowerment.

Dr. Jayshree Seth is a corporate scientist at 3M and the company’s first-ever Chief Science Advocate. With 61 patents to her name, she leads technology development for sustainable products in 3M’s Industrial Adhesives and Tapes Division (IATD). She is a frequent speaker on topics of innovation, leadership, and career development.