HR Leads Business

Mar 21, 2019 | Ginny Engholm

Is There Really a Gender Confidence Gap?

There is a lot of debate over the cause of the gender pay gap, but one thing we do know: It is a significant and stubborn problem for women in the workplace. And as women progress in their careers, the problem gets worse. Women’s representation at the higher levels of corporate structures is even lower, and their compensation at each stage of their career reflects an increasingly wider gap from their male counterparts as a result. 

People attribute this gap to a variety of causes from inflexible workplaces to sexist cultural norms to outright discrimination and bias. But another theory is that this gap -- and the lack of women in leadership roles that contributes to their significantly lower overall compensation -- reflects a gender confidence gap. The argument goes that women tend to be less confident in their abilities and less sure of their value and qualifications, which causes them to fail to negotiate for that higher pay or to not seek out that opportunity for promotion. 

“It is not a confidence issue, but a problem of perception and a systemic issue throughout multiple organizations,” says Libby Saylor Wright, COO of the Women’s Food Service Forum, a food industry nonprofit dedicated to achieving gender equity in the industry. A 2017 study backs this up -- women do ask for raises at the rate that men do. They’re just turned down more often.

 “In fact, our women in the workplace study indicates that it is absolutely not a motivation issue. Women have the same interest in being promoted as men do, at 75 percent for men and 71 percent for women.”  And women of color have especially high indicators of confidence and ambition, says Saylor Wright. “If you look specifically at women of color, and particularly black and Asian women, they actually are more motivated and interested in being promoted,” she says. “We definitely do not see it at all as a confidence issue.”

If it’s not a matter of confidence, then, what can employers do to address the gender pay gap in their organization and increase the number of women in positions of leadership?

Here are four strategies employers can use to help close the gender pay gap and improve the representation of women at all levels of their organization.

Have Leaders Go First

All successful diversity efforts have to start at the top. “The CEO must have a commitment to advancing women in the organization and driving awareness about the problem,” says Saylor Wright. 

It’s also important for companies to have diverse representation at the senior level, says Saylor Wright. “We know that companies that have a diverse representation at senior levels perform better to the tune of about 22 percent across the board,” says Saylor Wright. And providing different models of what success looks like is important too, says Elena Valentine, CEO of Skill Scout. “We already see the tides changing and are already seeing the level of exposure to women in leadership roles changing,” she says. 

Create Talent Communities

Creating opportunities for women to engage with talent communities that reflect their identities is essential to fostering a culture that promotes their leadership and growth. Even reaching out to local or national industry organizations focused on women can provide female employees at your company the mentorship and community they need to succeed, says Valentine. 

Developing a sense of community helps create an inclusive environment for women, which can lessen the drop off that happens for women as they advance in their careers. “Women are coming into the workplace at about a level equal to men,” says Saylor Wright. “But once they enter the workplace, the first level of promotion is the place where they see the steepest drop-off in terms of gender,” she says. And that decline is more significant for women of color, she points out. Not feeling isolated, not being the only woman or woman of color in the room, can have a profound and positive effect on women’s experiences, says Saylor Wright.

Tell Women’s Stories 

Companies that want to increase the representation of women at all levels of their organization need to feature stories of women’s experience in their workplace. This is particularly important in attracting new talent to your company, Valentine says. 

“This can be through video, through written spotlights, or via your social media,” she says. “But by making your employees the storytellers of your business, you can market your employer brand in a way that will attract diverse talent.” And you can provide models of success at various stages of a career path for your female employees.

Track and Measure Women in Leadership

Ultimately, companies that want to move the needle on their gender pay gap and increase the number of women in leadership roles at their organization need to commit to tracking and measuring their progress. “It’s not about quotas,” says Saylor Wright. “It’s about appropriate representation.” 

The goal for employers should be equity. “If our overall goal is equity, then equity would look like the percentage of women represented at various levels of the organization being equal to that of men,” she says.

To measure that, you look at the representation rate across each of the different metrics, says Saylor Wright. Look at entry rates and whether they're over or close to 50 percent. Then, examine what's happening along the way. “Ask, why is there, in some cases, less than 20 percent at the senior level? And for women of color, much more like less than 5 percent?”, she advises.

You also need to look at attrition and promotion rates to get the full picture of where the pipeline is breaking down, says Saylor Wright. Once you understand what the data reveal about gender at all points in your hiring and promotion processes, you can develop strategies to address the weak points.