Why women should not change their characters for their careers

A bias for confidence over competence in corporate cultures is creating obstacles for gender equality

Be the leader! Be confident! Share your opinions! Don’t apologise! Don’t ask for permission! Just do it! Be bold! No, this is not taken from an idiot‘s guide on bringing up entitled, self-centered rude children. Instead, it’s all self-development advice dished out to women in the workplace. 

Passed over for promotion? Your fault for not taking up talking time in meetings. Got a bonus that will only buy you a small bag of sweets? Well, you should have faked knowledge and confidence instead of raising concerns whether that big project was actually do-able within the proposed (too short) timeline. Yes, that’s what women are routinely given as explanation for not ‚being ready‘ for that next step up the career ladder. How often are men told to dial down their dominance?

A fictional example of confidence economics in the workplace


Sean, Susie and Stephanie work for a mid-sized firm. Their divisional leader has asked their team to develop a new iteration of a product to launch it into a new market segment. Susie and Stephanie are keen to work on the project and suggest first of all carrying out some market research and acquiring data to size the market. The divisional director thinks chis is all very well, but he’s not impressed with the women’s need for research and the associated longer timelines.

Enter Sean: instead of focusing on the details of the how, he simply says: „Yes, no problem, we can do that, it’s simple really, won’t bore you with the details, don’t worry, leave it with me, big boss!“.  But Sean doesn’t know how to do it, and it’s then down to Stephanie and Susan to figure things out and spend evenings and weekends making it work. No worries, Susie will make us a multi-coloured GANTT chart in Excel and Stephanie will look into the nitty gritty of how we can actually overcome all the obstacles in the path of success. After all, it would ‚reflect badly on the team‘ if we don’t deliver on the promises Sean made and the deadline was missed. Big boss would be so mad at the team, wouldn’t he? Well, we’ll never find out, because Susan and Stephanie pulled an all-nighter and finally, the project was a success. Well done, team? Nope. Well done Sean for his inspired leadership. Sean’s your man, always knows what to do, always delivers.

Inevitably, Sean gets promoted. When management looks for his replacement, both Susan and Stephanie are overlooked. Management recruits a man from outside the company, someone with a proven track record of leading teams and managing large budgets. After all, neither Susan nor Stephanie have had much visibility with senior management, Sean was always the one to represent the team. So neither woman ever built her profile with the senior leaders who make decisions over who gets promoted and who doesn’t. Were they competent enough to do the job? Yes, they have been effectively doing Sean’s job for years, but their competence was overlooked.

Management promotes confidence over competence.

Confident leaders get results, don’t they? Well, shareholders of Lehman Brothers, investors of Madoff and the boss of the man who got that container ship stuck in the Suez canal might disagree. Competence should trump confidence.

Yes, of course not all men are braggarts and windbags. But do those quietly competent men get promoted beyond middle management? Maybe in some professions. Clearly, competence trumps confidence when it comes to the stuff that really matters, like brain surgery, designing rockets to Mars and leading a country during times of crisis. Sorry, Boris Johnson, during the good times, the country may have run very well on the energy produced by your bluster, but during the bad times, we need someone to actually, you know, look into the detail of that oven-ready Brexit deal, and which measures protect lives, together with the prescience to put the country on a course of achieving sustainable and renewable energy that doesn’t leave us at the mercy of a bare-chested bear wrestler who’s threatening to wipe us off the face of the planet.   

This brings us to the reason why men should be encouraged to whack their confidence rather than telling women to hack their confidence: 

Diversity creates better business outcomes. Fact. 
If we all fake confidence and are encouraged to ape alpha male behaviour, that really is the opposite of diversity. To avoid group-think, we need diversity of thought and style, and not just diversity of external race, social class and gender markers. To foster innovation and better business outcomes, we need to listen not just the loudest leaders, but we need to listen and value the quietly spoken concern as much as the proudly proclaimed self-promotion.

Imposter syndrome, which women leaders are often thought to have, is a form of self-doubt largely driven by a lack of diversity – the feeling of having to fake confidence and being different from the (male) norm. Valuing quiet competence over loud confidence will encourage not just greater diversity – by giving more airtime to different views and encouraging ‘atypical’ leaders to come to the fore – it will also improve the overall quality of leadership in the company. Confident people will continue to be confident, but might then also be encouraged by this shift in value to increase their competence in other areas and give greater prominence to their team members with different skillsets. After all, if you are the leader or shareholder of a company, would you rather all leaders learn to be competitively confident or collaboratively competent?

Please stop telling your female employees to hack their confidence and instead work on your corporate culture to value competence over confidence. Your employees and your investors will thank you, now and in the long-term.  

Diversity delivers value via collaboration.

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