Women's Lack of Confidence May Be Universal, But It's Not Fixed!

In 2012, after over a decade living in the US, I relocated back to Australia. Having began my "second career" while in America, I had to start over from zero in rebuilding my business.

Over the previous decade I'd been fortunate to coach and work with a host of smart, ambitious women. While many of them had been relatively successful and punched through a few glass ceilings in their respective domains, many had confided to me about their struggle with self-confidence. Sometimes it revealed itself as "imposter syndrome," other times with anxiety, and other times by driving them to hold back rather than 'lean in' to growth opportunities. So arriving back in Australia, I was curious to see how the cultural differences between countries played out for career minded women.

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Turns out, less than I thought.

While it has been my observation that misogyny is more prevalent in Australia where there is more stigma associated with failure and, hand in hand with that, less appetite for risk than in the U.S., over all I've witnessed women wrestle with the same inner critic in both countries. In fact, wherever I've worked around the world -- from Boston to Beijing, I've noticed a fundamental lack of self-belief temper female ambition and hold women back.

Until now though, I've never seen any research to support my own anecdotal experience. However, a recent study by Wiebke Bleidorn, Ph.D., from the University of California, reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, has found that the disparity in belief between men and women isn't just in the U.S. or Australia, it's universal.

The eight-year study by Bleidorn her co-researchers analyzed data from over 985,000 men and women across 48 countries, from Norway to New Zealand, Kuwait to South Korea, asking them to rate the phrase: "I see myself as someone who has high self-esteem study found that across the board -- regardless of culture or country, men have higher self-esteem than women."

"We were really surprised by the remarkable degree of similarity across cultures," Bleidorn says (If you're interested in the confidence gaps Bleidorn's team found in all 48 countries you can do so on this interactive map.)

"In nearly all cultures, men have higher self-esteem. But the difference lies in the magnitude of the gap." In industrialized Western countries like the U.S. and Australia the gap is more pronounced than in non-Western, developing countries. That is, the gap between how little women think of themselves compared to how highly men do grows in the more developed, egalitarian, countries - the very ones one might expect it to be the least.

While the scope of Bleidorn's research didn't include answers to this finding, she had some theories. Firstly, that part of the universal confidence gap may be explained by our biology. That is, we're simply hardwired differently. "Most personality traits have a genetic basis, so there's reason to assume it might be at least partly genetically driven," Bleidorn said. "But you don't measure people's physiology to get their self-esteem -- you just ask them. So we don't know."

Perhaps more interesting to me was Bleidorn's theory on why the confidence of women in Western societies lags so far behind that of men.

"I can speculate that in Western societies, women are more likely to compare themselves to men. Men tend to have higher-status positions and higher salaries, for example, so the comparison is less favorable for women." - Wiebke Bleidorn, Ph.D., University of California

As counter intuitive as it may be, women fortunate enough to be born in egalitarian cultures are more likely to fall victim to their own negative comparisons with the men around them who, despite the advances women have over the last century, still hold positions of greater power and status and earn more money. (The World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report found that women in the U.S. earn approximately two-thirds of what men do for similar work.)

Accordingly, in Asian countries, where women are less likely to compare themselves to men but rather to other women, they are less likely to feel they are coming up short relative to other women since other women aren't, on average, holding the balance of power.

"On average, women still don't have as much power as men, and yet they have access to these positions and opportunities," Bleidorn says, referring to the fact that while America has numerous high profile women in leadership, female CEO's still make up only 4.2% of S&P 500 CEO's. Women don't fare any better in Australia where a recent study cited in Women's Agenda found that there are more men called Peter (6.5%) leading ASX 200 companies than all women (5.75%).

So how does a lack of self-esteem, often simply referred to as "self-confidence" play out?

Given confidence is defined as our belief in our ability to succeed at a given task, a lack of it drives risk aversion and makes people less willing to pursue new challenges. Safer to stick with the status quo. Judith Beck, an executive recruiter in the financial services industry and CEO of Financial Executive Women (FEW), told me how she feels women are more cautious in their careers compared to men, whether in the jobs they are in or in considering new roles within or outside their current employer.

"Women are less likely to take a risk on their career. Over time they end up missing out on opportunities." - Judith Beck

As pointed out in The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, it seems that a crucial piece of the puzzle in bridging the gender gap is addressing the gender confidence gap. Of course having more confident women won't eliminate unconscious bias or stop more self-assured outspoken women from being called bossy or bitchy (where men are simply labeled assertive). However, as more women 'own their value' it will empower others to call out bias when they see it, put themselves forward for stretch challenges and take more of the risks that men do. This will, in turn, move more women up the ladder which, in turn, will provide the more much needed role models, mentors, sponsors and inspiration for women following below.

One piece of the puzzle to closing the gender gap requires emboldening women to back themselves more and doubt themselves less.

Solving the gender gap is a complex multi-faced issue requiring an equally multi-faceted approach. Having wrestled with my own share of self-doubt, I know there is no quick fix or magic bullet for building self-confidence or permanently eradicating self-doubt in women. Yet as I shared in my recent interview with the Wall Street Journal above, I've learned that nothing builds confidence in any arena more than stepping right into the middle of it...palms sweating, stomach knotted, beside the guys ...despite the chorus of doubts urging you to play it safe on the sidelines.

"Too often women overestimate the risks and underestimate themselves. Only by doing the very things we're afraid of can we come to realize how little reason we ever had to fear. The only way to build confidence and courage is by acting with it." - from Stop Playing Safe

Certainly deciding to wait until we feel brave and confident and possessing a Clinton sized self-esteem may lead to be a very, very, long wait. To quote Sheryl Sandberg, "Fortune does favor the bold and you'll never know what you're capable of if you don't try."

Men make great leaders. But so too do women. And the world needs the full quota of what women have to bring because, as study after study has also found, when more women sit at the decision making tables, better decisions are made leaving everyone better off. A rising tide lifts all boats.

Margie Warrell is a bestselling author and international speaker who is passionate about supporting women to own their value and make their mark. She is also Australia's first Ambassador for Women in Global Business. Learn more at www.MargieWarrell.com