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Confidence is a gendered word

With much still needing clarifying and resolving about gender pay, there is no doubt that it is now inexplicably linked to an organisation’s brand, reputation and the ability to attract the best diverse talent.

In the wake of the latest reporting, firms are likely looking yet again at how to solve the ‘women’s issue’. This HBR article by Laura Guillén of ESMT and her research with Margarita Mayo of IE Business School and Natalia Karelaia of INSEAD, offers another angle and new insight on some of the reasons why women are not securing the top roles.

An important message in this article is that the “women need to be more confident” message is an outdated myth.  That myth is recycled repeatedly as a reason why women don’t progress, and yet this belief is no longer bought into and owned by women.  We know that the factors influencing women’s progression and retention are a by-product of organisational culture and it has never been just about the processes and policies which attract so much organisational energy and attention.

What we value about this article is that it encourages organisations to stop trying to fix women and desist putting the burden to change on them.  The research suggests that the “performance plus confidence equals power and influence” formula is in fact gendered. Interestingly, women secure less power and influence unless they perform and demonstrate warmth and pro-social (caring and supporting) skills.   Yet men are not expected to demonstrate the latter so there is a double standard at play.

The author offers a number of practical steps that organisations can take to address some of the biases. Our build on this is that there is a more strategic opportunity for those firms that want to create more inclusive cultures.  This is based on switching the organisational viewpoint from helping individual women to navigate a gendered cultural system, towards a collective appreciation and recognition of the leadership difference women bring.

Our view is:

  • Women do lead differently contributing to the collective intelligence of the organisation if it is openly encouraged, recognised and rewarded. Korn Ferry’s recent profiling of women CEO’s demonstrates that there are nuanced differences women leaders bring which should be encouraged.

  • Women’s power and influence is facilitated by a climate where they feel they can bring their authentic whole-selves to work. Leaders who value the different perspectives women bring, will enable more of their female talent to progress to senior leadership roles.

  • Instead of covertly expecting women to demonstrate pro-social qualities, organisations should shout from the roof-tops about why they matter. This would not only signal the importance of valuing these qualities in women, but make it safe and acceptable for men to display these qualities too.

Ultimately, it is vitally important that leaders in organisations continue to question if they have an inclusive culture. Where there are ‘missing’ women and other underrepresented and minority groups at senior levels, don’t assume that a process or policy change around flex working/ blind CV’s/ gender balanced interviewer panels will fix it. Instead, we hope organisations will see this as another opportunity to learn more of what it means to lead inclusively and value everyone’s difference.

Authors: Lynn White & Clare Russell, WDI Consulting Limited