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The Confidence Gap

A few years ago, I was advising a thriving startup with over a hundred employees. The CEO asked me to help initiate a search for a new CFO. His goal was to hire a woman.

At the time, the executive team at the startup was composed of three men and one woman. For a new tech company, that’s a pretty good ratio, but at the next layer of the hierarchy, the numbers were abysmal. Managers were overwhelmingly male, and the CEO was committed to cultivating more gender diversity moving forward.

Our recruiter told the CEO that there were currently few female CFOs in relevant industries to pick from, but there were many highly qualified female executives one level below CFO. To expand the candidate pool, it would be best to include women with the right mix of experience who had not yet served in the CFO position. 

In the interest of fairness and inclusion, the CEO and I agreed that we would also consider male candidates. To do otherwise would constitute reverse discrimination. Regardless, we implored our recruiter to go the extra mile in finding qualified women.

Our recruiter did just that. After rigorous assessments, our final candidate pool consisted of three women and three men. Each candidate had a stellar background in finance and relevant industry experience with high emotional intelligence. I was satisfied, and I felt positive about our chances of hiring a woman, even after one of the female candidates dropped out at the 11th hour because of a family crisis. We still had two highly qualified women in the running.

And yet, even after setting out with every intention of hiring a woman, what did we do? 

We hired a man…

Why aren’t there more women leaders?

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an organizational psychologist and professor of Business Psychology at University College of London. His groundbreaking research sheds light on why it’s so hard for some highly competent people, especially women and minorities, to advance to the top levels of their professions. 

Chamorro-Premuzic starts with the basics. Adult women make up around 50% of the population. As college students, women outperform men in aggregate. But even though academic success should, in theory, set students up for professional success, that’s not how it works for women. Most senior managers are male, and women are remarkably under-represented in top roles and leadership generally. Why?

There are three popular explanations for this phenomenon:

  • Women are not capable.
  • Women are not interested.
  • Women are both interested and capable but unable to break the glass ceiling. [The glass ceiling, of course, is the invisible but systemic barrier of gender bias that prevents advancement beyond a certain level.]

My story of failing to recruit a female CFO helps explore these assumptions. The first assumption can be immediately scratched out. Our candidate pool consisted of highly capable women who were thoroughly vetted for their technical abilities, experience and know-how. 

The second assumption is also demonstrably false. These women took time out from busy professional and family demands to engage in a thorough, time-consuming process and worked hard to be given the opportunity. 

The third assumption didn’t seem right, either. While I can’t completely discount unconscious gender bias, I can assure you that the systemic barriers were low for this role, if they existed at all. I witnessed the process firsthand, and I know that the CEO, in his commitment to gender diversity, was extremely eager to hire a female CFO. 

I knew that the root cause was what Chamarro-Premuzic highlights in his HBR article, “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” There he cites a difference in confidence between men and women as the key factor in career advancement. By misinterpreting displays of confidence as signs of competence:

“we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women. In other words, when it comes to leadership, the only advantage that men have over women … is the fact that the manifestations of hubris – often masked as charisma or charm – are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.” 

In the interview process up to this point consisted of myself, the CEO, and three people on the finance team, all well versed in the requirements of the job. Based on competence, we knew both women would be outstanding in the role. Both also exhibited higher emotional intelligence and strategic acumen than the men. This assured us they would be able to build and maintain high-performance teams, develop and mentor reports, collaborate effectively with senior executives and across departments, and establish and execute broad strategic goals. 

Yet, they both projected less confidence compared with the men—which we feared would significantly influence the perspectives of the other interviewers. 

The final interview team was made up of four people—two board members and two non-finance executives. I was concerned that these interviewers would not have a sufficient understanding of the day-to-day requirements of the role to effectively evaluate the competence of the final candidates. And thus, my fear was that they would choose confidence over competence. 

Between rounds of interviews, I reached out to the recruiter to describe what I was seeing, and even suggested that some coaching could be helpful. 

Unfortunately, the recruiter did not have the ability to coach the candidates to project more confidence. And it was too late to hire an outside coach to have an impact with the interviews just days away. 

Neither woman made it to the final round. 

The Confidence Gap 

Chamarro-Premuzic sites the confidence gap between men and women as an almost universal truth. All over the world, men overestimate their own intelligence, while women are generally more humble than men. Ironically, Chamarro-Premuzic’s research also reveals that the best leaders are usually humble, a trait tied to high emotional intelligence, which is more prevalent in women.

The number of women in the top ranks of organizations helps illustrate this phenomenon. McKinsey’s 2019 LeanIn study revealed that female representation falls from around 50% in entry level ranks to about 25% at the executive level and around 7% at the CEO level. 

If Chamarro-Premuzic is right, and confidence is a differentiating factor, how does this play out in practice? Consider the numbers again. 

At the entry-level, the ranks of women and men are roughly comparable. Not coincidentally, these roles are heavily tactical in nature and require candidates or position-holders to demonstrate ability in a very practical and observable way. In other words, confidence may be important at this level, but competence is too. 

As people ascend the hierarchy and become managers and leaders, things change rapidly. The proportion of the job that is tactical in nature dramatically decreases, while the responsibilities that rely on more vague personal qualities begin to assume more and more importance. 

Self-confidence thus becomes extremely valuable when considering whom to promote for leadership roles—or so we’ve been led to believe.

Lack of Confidence – a Common Impostor Behavior

In our research, we have linked that confidence gap to the Impostor Syndrome. Some people call it the X-Factor, that powerful perception that an individual has some special set of attributes that gives others confidence in their abilities and likelihood of success. 

These attributes have almost nothing to do with actual competence or level of experience; but because of the X-factor, white male candidates for higher-level executive roles are assessed very differently than women or minorities, irrespective of their actual abilities. 

The key to making gender, racial and ethnic diversity a reality in the executive ranks lies not in women’s abilities, but rather in our perception of those abilities. While we may hope to replace our insistence in confidence with a focus on competence, that shift will be difficult and a long time coming. 

The solution is to give women the tools and training they need to elevate their own internal sense of confidence. Male mentors and allies can also play an important role. When men highlight the competence of the high performing women they work, they provide critical support so these women own and project more of their well-deserved confidence. The support of influential men also ensures that others can appreciate the competence of their female colleagues.

It is critical for organizations that are committed to diversity in the executive ranks to invest in coaching and development for their top female and diverse employees, and to encourage and train male executives to become effective mentors and allies.  


This piece originally appeared on Linkedin, and was published here with permission.

Kate Purmal

Kate Purmal

Kate is a Board Director at ABD Insurance and Financial Services and a Business Advisor and Executive Coach. She is also an author and a Senior Fellow at Georgetown University. Kate is a passionate advocate for diversity at the highest levels of business and is a firm believer that unwavering optimism can transcend even the most daunting systemic barriers in the workplace. She has spent decades as an executive coach, bringing out brilliance in leaders and their teams. Kate launched her career as a member of Palm Inc.’s founding management team before becoming a Senior Vice President at SanDisk. She has subsequently served as CEO and COO for several start-ups and privately held companies, and serves as an Independent Board Director. Kate now applies her expertise to research gender equity in the C-Suite as a Senior Industry Fellow at Georgetown University. Kate is a guest lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business, University of Michigan’s Ross school of Business and Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. She is the author of The Moonshot Effect: Disrupting Business as Usual. Her second book, The Impostor Breakthrough, will be published in 2021.

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