[Author: Gwen Rhys]
My 25-yr old godson recently attended a corporate away-day: “Did you know research shows that women only apply for jobs when they met 100% of the qualifications listed, as opposed to men, who apply if they met 60%?” he asked me.
I replied that well, yes, I had heard this (yawn!).
I also pointed out that this much-cited “research” purportedly came from an internal Hewlett Packard (HP) report from which HP had deduced that the lack of women in upper management in its organisation was due to a lack of confidence among women. Quite why it never occurred to HP that it might be overconfidence in men, I’m not sure, but this one piece of “research” has influenced the entire narrative of why women don’t progress to senior roles.
In 2014, Norwegian academic Curt Rice who leads Norway’s Committee on Gender Balance and Diversity in Research set out to find this “research” and concluded that
There is no legitimate, evidence-based foundation for the claim that men apply for jobs when they feel 60 percent qualified while women have to be 100 percent certain. None. Nothing that can be examined, reproduced, reviewed or cited.
In the same year, Tara Mohr, an expert on women’s leadership, surveyed over a thousand men and women, predominantly American professionals, and asked them, “If you decided not to apply for a job because you didn’t meet all the qualifications, why didn’t you apply?”
According to the self-report of the respondents, the barrier to applying was not lack of confidence. In fact, for both men and women, “I didn’t think I could do the job well” was the least common of all the responses. Only about 10% of women and 12% of men indicated that this was their top reason for not applying.
So what were their reasons for not applying?
Didn’t want to waste time and energy
Men and women gave the same most common reason for not applying. 41% of women and 46% of men indicating their top reason as: “I didn’t think they would hire me since I didn’t meet the qualifications, and I didn’t want to waste my time and energy.”
Fear of failure
22% of women indicated their top reason was that they didn’t want to put themselves out there if they were going to fail – the consequences would be too great – and Stanford research has indicated that women’s failures are remembered longer than men’s.
Following the rules
15% of women indicated the top reason they didn’t apply was because they were following the guidelines about who should apply.
It’s the process not the people
Mohr concluded that women don’t need to try and find that elusive quality, “confidence,” but rather hiring and promotional processes need to be more transparent and equality based.
This view is also held by Carolyn Tastad, group president of North America at Procter & Gamble. At the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on a panel called Female Leadership at a Tipping Point, she highlighted the flawed belief of women lacking confidence by saying:
There is a false narrative and there are false bias assumptions we are using as justification for the lack of progress. There are a number of things we have to do differently.
We’ve got to get rid of this notion that women have to behave differently. We’ve got to be very intentional in our talent planning — reverse engineer it. If you narrow it down to specifics and maths, it can be done.
We need equality based policies. We need to find ways for men and women to be equal partners at home to enable quality in the workplace.
Why change the process?
Women take written job qualifications more seriously than men, for several reasons:
- A McKinsey report found that men are often hired or promoted based on their potential, women for their experience and track record. If women have watched that occur in their workplaces, it makes perfect sense they’d be less likely to apply for a job for which they didn’t meet the qualifications.
- Girls are strongly socialized to follow the rules and in school are rewarded, again and again, for doing so. In part, girls’ greater success in school (relative to boys) can be attributed to their better rule following. Then in their careers, that rule-following habit has real costs, including when it comes to adhering to the guidelines about “who should apply.”
- Certifications and degrees have historically played a different role for women than for men. The 20th century saw women break into professional life – but only if they had the right training, the right accreditations. These qualifications were women’s ticket in, a way of proving they could do the job. Women weren’t part of an old boys club in which they’d get the benefit of the doubt. That history can lead women to see the workplace as more orderly and meritocratic than it really is. As a result women mayoverestimate the importance of their formal training and qualifications, and underutilize advocacy and networking.
It took me a while to understand that the habits of diligent preparation and doing quality work that I’d learned in school were not the only—or even primary—ingredients I needed to become visible and successful within my organization.
When it comes to applying for jobs, women need to do the same. Of course, it can’t hurt to believe more in ourselves. But in this case, it’s more important that we believe less in what appear to be the rules.
Have courage, take on challenging goals
I meet many high qualified, capable women. Many tell me they “lack confidence”. I’m not certain they do. I think this is a self-fulfilling prophecy that the HP “research” has encouraged. However, I do sense they often lack courage – the courage to “have a go”, to put themselves out there certain in the knowledge that they will bounce back to fight another day.
Individuals, boys and men in particular, are often described as being over-confident (cocky) but I’ve never heard anyone being described as over-courageous. So I urge women to stop talking about their “lack of confidence”. Be courageous and confidence will follow.
As Adam Grant, Organizational psychologist at Wharton Business School, US has said:
You don’t need to build confidence to achieve challenging goals. You build confidence through achieving challenging goals.