I have just come from a workshop run for early career scientists on ‘’Getting the most out of your appraisal’’. Sitting looking at our institution’s matrix of indicators of contributions for staff promotion and hearing it said that you don’t need ‘’to tick all the boxes’’ when thinking about taking the next step on the promotion ladder, I was left wondering whether the men and the women in the room were hearing and accepting that message in the same way.
The received wisdom is that men are significantly more confident than women in their leadership abilities. They are willing to ‘’take a punt’’ for promotion with maybe only half of the criteria met, while women who are equally skilled will hold back until all those boxes are ticked. One has to ask – are men just better at public displays of confidence even though privately they may have self-doubt? Or are women more open about their lack of confidence? Is there a gender disparity in confidence? If there is, why does it persist in academe (or anywhere else for that matter)?
Is a gender disparity in confidence down to more than just a personal defect? Does it not also stem from an environment that fails to foster self-esteem and undervalues self-assured women?
The term “confidence gap,” was popularized by journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of “The Confidence Code” http://theconfidencecode.com/ . While I am unable to buy into their concept of a modifiable confidence gene as an elemental resource, I am willing to accept in part their premise that confidence is much about choice; and that what is holding women back is their own self-doubt.
The “imposter syndrome” – a phenomenon in which high-achieving women believe “they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise” – was first written about in 1978 by Clance & Imes, psychotherapists who worked with over 150 highly successful women PhDs recognized for their academic excellence (Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, 15, #3, 1978). The women who considered themselves to be imposters believed that they were not intelligent and were convinced that they had fooled anyone who thought otherwise. Clance & Imes found that this phenomenon occurred much less frequently in men and that when it did occur, it was much less intense. They also found that in either gender the imposter syndrome was very difficult to overcome. Both Clance & Imes and Kay & Shipman argue that women should be encouraged to worry less about ‘’approval getting behaviours’’ and ‘’perfection’’ and be more willing to be authentic, to take risks and to accept failure (should it occur). I am not advocating a ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ principle but there is a distinct advantage in convincing yourself that you are confident in your abilities and that you are not an imposter.
But is a gender disparity in confidence down to more than just a personal defect? Does it not also stem from an environment that fails to foster self-esteem and undervalues self-assured women? Some years ago Carol Black and Asiya Islam (two self-acknowledged self-assured and self-confident women) wrote an article on ‘’Women in academia: what does it take to reach the top? ‘’ https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/feb/24/women-academia-promotion-cambridge. In it they argued that we all need to learn to take responsibility for our own careers and that you won’t get a job or promotion if you don’t believe that you are appropriately qualified to get it (and as a consequence don’t apply for it). They also highlighted that no matter how much women promote themselves and learn confidence through training courses and mentoring, the only way women will progress to higher positions is through eliminating systemic bias in policies and procedures.
I am proud that we, as an institution, have done so much towards eliminating that bias and promoting policies to support women through public initiatives such as WiSET, AthenaSWAN. I am also proud that even more has been done ‘behind the scenes’ by individuals and departments to drive change. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a long way to go and I will still ‘’Press for Progress’’ on International Women’s’ Day https://www.internationalwomensday.com/. However, the career ladder now has a nearly complete set of rungs and there are an increasing number of people around who are better than ever equipped to help anyone who wishes to climb it.