This much we know: There’s a wide and stubborn gender gap, both in terms of pay and leadership opportunities. What we still can’t figure out are the causes. Some argue that inflexible workplaces are to blame. Others point to sexist cultural norms and even outright discrimination.
While the truth is probably a combination of all these factors, and more, another theory has gained ground in recent years. Sometimes referred to as the “confidence gap,” the theory holds that women feel less confident than men in their own abilities, and in a corporate world that rewards horn tooters more than the humble, women’s tendency to avoid promoting themselves and their accomplishments means they’re passed over for big projects, leadership roles, and pay raises. The solution, women are told, is simple: Go forth with the confidence of a man, and that corner office will be yours. If sales of books like Lean In and The Confidence Code are any indication, many women have swallowed this interpretation hook, line, and sinker.
There’s just one problem: There’s a strong body of research suggesting that women feel just as confident in their abilities and leadership skills as their male peers. The confidence gap seems to be a classic case of mistaking the symptom—women’s apparent inability to promote themselves—for the cause. “Women do seem to toot their horns less than their male colleagues,” says Hannah Riley Bowles, a senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School who studies women’s leadership. “The problem is when you stop there and say, ‘Okay, well, women just need to be more like men.’ The story of why women are more modest than men is much more complicated than that.”