Does 'leaning in' really help women get ahead?

The advice often given to women in the workplace, particularly those in the tech sector, is that they should be more assertive if they want to get ahead.

By George Nott Mar 14th 2018 A-A+

The advice often given to women in the workplace, particularly those in the technology and IT sector, is that they should be more assertive if they want to get ahead.

Lack of self-confidence is one of the main factors holding women back, suggests Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg in her blockbuster book Lean In.

Now a new study from RMIT University, an Australian public research university located in Melbourne, casts doubt on that assumption, revealing that higher levels of confidence do not particularly translate to career gains for women.

“Confidence is a factor in success at work, and we see that, on average, women are less confident than men in putting themselves forward for a challenge. So it seems logical that, to achieve gender equality, we should encourage women to ‘lean in’ and develop the confidence to go for more challenging roles and job promotions,” said RMIT economic researcher Dr. Leonora Risse.

“But our analysis shows it’s not that simple.”

Benefit and backlash

The study looked at the promotion prospects and confidence levels of more than 7500 working men and women across Australia.

Researchers measured confidence using a psychological survey instrument that contains two dimensions – hope for success and fear of failure and analyzed the results alongside nationally-representative workforce-wide data collected in the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey.

Overall workers with higher confidence, or hope for success, were generally more likely to be promoted in the following year. On average, men have a higher hope for success, while women have a higher fear of failure.

“The catch is that among men, progressive increases in hope for success lift their job promotion prospects – by 3.3 per cent on average. But increases in hope for success don’t translate to any sizeable increase in the promotion prospects of women,” Risse explained.

Take a highly confident woman – at the upper-most end of the confidence scale – and a highly confident man. The chances of promotion rise from eight per cent to 14 per cent for those men, but remain at around seven to eight per cent among the confident women.

An estimated 150,000 more men than women are promoted each year within Australia’s 12 million-strong workforce.

“This signal of potential bias in how women are treated in the workplace is consistent with other research showing that women receive a lower benefit – or even suffer backlash – for demonstrating ambition, confidence, assertiveness and leadership qualities in the workplace,” Risse said.

Risse argues that employers should shake off the idea that confidence is a good measure of competence.

“Higher confidence does not necessarily equate to higher competence. In fact, overconfidence can lead to poor performance. Instead of encouraging women to converge to a stereotypical image of a successful leader, workplaces should focus on the gains that diversity in workers’ personalities and attributes brings to their organization,” Risse said.

The researchers suggest rather than expecting women to change their behaviors, workplaces should be the ones to change, and check their biases.

“In fact, there is a risk that placing the onus on women to change their behavior deflects attention from the bigger issue, which is the gender bias that appears to simmer beneath the surface in many organizational environments,” Risse said.

“Rather than pushing for behavioral change among women, workplaces should instead check for gender biases in how they value their workers’ attributes to ensure they don’t reward charisma over competence,” she added.