Updated: Mar 6, 2020
By Jennifer Reichelt -
I never fully understood how and why gender inequality in the workforce is still such an issue in today’s world. Being an ambitious young woman of 22 years myself, I do not recall considerable obstacles I had to face in high school or university due to the fact that I am female. If anything, I was always under the impression that it was the girls who studied conscientiously, worked hard, ran student committees and generally showed greater discipline and ambition than the boys did. This earned girls better results and praise.
It seemed that I was not the only one who felt like their sex has not posed a major challenge to their personal and career development. In an introductory course to Human Diversity at my university, me and my fellow students were asked to introduce ourselves and state which key marker (out of gender, sexuality, race, class, ethnicity, nationality and religion) we believe to have the biggest impact on our identities. I was not surprised to see that the majority of students chose nationality, as it is a university with a highly international student body. The professor, however, pointed out that, while over 60% of the class were female, only two students mentioned gender. A subsequent discussion reflected my own experiences - none of the young women in the room said they felt underprivileged or shared stories of discrimination. Now, I want to emphasize that many of these students, including myself, come from a middle- or upper-class background and therefore already have an advantage which many girls and women do not have. But it was still striking to me that not a single student could recall in which ways being a woman might pose an extra challenge, a disadvantage, to them.
This perception changed when, for the first time in my life, I found myself in a professional setting. While I always felt confident in my academic performance and in the positions I had taken in various committees and clubs, my summer internship at a Berlin university showed me the limits of that confidence. Suddenly I was afraid to disappoint, to not work hard enough, and to be perceived as lazy or ungrateful. I remember asking for a change in housing, as I lived on campus, and feeling extremely nervous about the inconvenience it could cause my colleagues, especially the housing director. My supervisor Tina reassured me that it wouldn’t hurt to ask: “I think women often tend to be overly apologetic. You can negotiate for a better room and if it doesn’t work out, at least you tried.” Was that it? Was I being overly apologetic because I was a woman? It must be about being in a new environment, I thought, and surely a man would experience the same discomfort demanding something while being ‘just’ an intern. But Tina’s words raised questions in my head that I couldn’t let go.
Katty Kay and Claire Shipman brilliantly answer these questions with their 2014 The Atlantic article "The Confidence Gap", in which they claim that a vast gap in confidence separating the sexes is posing a crisis for women. The authors acknowledge the existing cultural and institutional barriers to female success, but they stress that women’s lack of confidence is part of the reason why men continue to hold top positions, are paid more and get promoted faster. This claim is supported with numerous interesting studies. While men tend to be overconfident, women generally underestimate their abilities, and part of the problem is their perfectionism. Kay and Shipman state that “women feel confident only when they are perfect. Or practically perfect.” Accordingly, they are willing to apply for a job or promotion when they believe they fulfill 100 percent of the requirements, while men apply when they believe to meet 60 percent of the qualifications. Another key issue is that women tend to worry about how they are perceived by colleagues and superiors, which causes them to hold back. This fear of not being liked is not an irrational one. The article explains that behavior seen as aggressive has more severe consequences for women than it does for men. To put it simply, both men and women are more forgiving or even impressed when a man speaks up and takes initiative but judge a woman’s character for the same actions. Awareness of this double standard can limit women even more in growing their confidence.
Nevertheless, Kay and Shipman highlight that “to succeed confidence matters as much as competence.” The obvious conclusion is that we have to close the confidence gap. But how? The inspiration and encouragement to write this article came from my first encounter with the student-run collaborative network Women in Innovation and Leadership, or WIL. I had heard of WIL before and assumed it was another committee which allowed students to discuss ideas and share experiences. Then I attended a general meeting this February, which was held to reflect on previous events and accomplishments, introduce the upcoming program and gain new members. It turned out that my initial understanding of the organization covered just a fraction of what it is actually about. Only after hearing the members speak and experiencing the atmosphere at the meeting did I realize how much a group like WIL has to offer. The benefits of building a professional network and participating in skill-building workshops are obvious, but especially the encouragement to take action and the opportunity to hear from other ambitious women that have ideas, plans, demand things and take initiative had an incredible impact on me. I decided that I should ignore fears of criticism and failure and become active, even if it just meant writing down my thoughts. Sara Kemppainen, co-founder and chair of WIL, said in an interview: “This kind of realization that you can do so much more than you think if you just do it, that’s what I hope for.” I only read the interview after the meeting, realizing that this was the exact effect WIL had already had on me.
One week after the first general meeting, my first event as an official WIL member was a public speaking workshop held by TED Talk coach Jonathan Talbott. His advice on how to overcome fears of speaking to large audiences was fascinating, but it was a remark he made on the tension between confidence and competence that really caught my attention. His experiences working with female speakers confirmed Kay and Shipman’s argument. While many women have the necessary skills to succeed in what they want to do, their lack of confidence sets them up for failure. Relating this to public speaking, Talbott turned these observations into a powerful message. He explained that women are socialized from a young age to collaborate, care about others and ask for help. To build connections. This can be a huge advantage and a skill that we can actively use to overcome fears of public speaking and self-doubt. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but a strategy to success. I believe that we can apply this to the confidence gap and am convinced that this is the true power of WIL. It gives young women that are just about to enter the workforce a platform to collaborate and mutually support and encourage each other, thereby building the confidence they will need to excel. By lifting each other, we can close the confidence gap as a first step to tackling gender inequalities in the workforce.