What you need to know about the gender 'confidence gap' at work

If seeing is believing, it’s little wonder that women may struggle to picture themselves in key roles across the workforce. But under-representation is just one of the factors contributing to a gender confidence gap that can limit women’s opportunities at work.

A gender confidence gap can be seen at almost every point of employment. Data from SEEK shows 32% of women are unlikely to apply for a job if they didn’t have all the skills listed in the job ad, compared to 20% of men. 

The data also shows that women are less confident during interviews than men (41% versus 64% ) and face-to-face presentations (52% versus 67%) and feel less confident talking about their achievements than men (49% versus 66%).

“If people don't feel as confident, then they don't act as confidently, because our thoughts lead to our feelings and our feelings often lead to our behaviours,” says SEEK’s Resident Psychologist Sabina Read. “If you’re not being rewarded for speaking up, for example, it makes sense that you may have learned to dial down your voice.”

What’s causing the confidence gap?

It’s easy to say that self-doubt is holding women back. But that would overlook the systemic bias that has long impacted women’s confidence at work.

Structural inequalities, such as the gender pay gap and inflexible work practices, continue to send a message that women are less valued at work than men. And, when women do feel confident at work, research suggests it’s under-recognised, which contributes to slower career progression.

Women have also been largely excluded from some highly skilled industries, such as construction, where they make up just 12% of the workforce, although this is slowly changing.

“There's no doubt that women are still the minority in the construction industry,” says Alison Mirams, Executive Chair of boutique Australian construction company Roberts Co, which has a 50:50 gender split across its executive leadership team. “Statistics prove it, but you can also see it when you walk past a construction site. How many women do you see?”

Read says your sense of psychological safety can also impact confidence at work.

“Psychological safety is about feeling that you can be entirely yourself at work and you will be accepted – you won't be judged, criticised or punished in some way,” she says. “When there’s a gap in who is being championed, mentored, promoted and encouraged, that can also erode psychological safety.”

Challenging the gender confidence gap

Systemic barriers remain hard to overcome, but here are some ways that may help you to build your confidence in the environment that you’re in.

Retune your inner voice

Have you chosen not to apply for a job if you don’t tick every box in the selection criteria? Have you felt you’re not quite good enough to take on a new role?

Read says it’s natural to tune into the radio in our own mind that shapes how we feel about ourselves. “A lot of the stories we tell ourselves have come from experiences,” she says. “If something happened to knock our confidence, we tell ourselves to avoid trying it again.”

To challenge these feelings, Read suggests focusing on the experiences that may have caused them.

“Then you can start to challenge it in your mind,” she says. “Was it an isolated incident that knocked your confidence? If it happened once, why would it happen again? What factors were at play that might have contributed to things not going the way you wanted?"

“When you understand why you feel a certain way, you can move towards challenging it in your mind and gain evidence that things can be different.”

Seek support

It may be helpful to bring in external voices to help you with your thoughts.

“If you’re not feeling confident in delivering something at work, seek out senior people and ask what they would do in your situation,” says Read.

“It might be a manager or someone more senior in your team. It might make you feel vulnerable to ask for advice, because you’ll be sharing the challenges that you’re feeling, but there’s a high chance that others have walked in your shoes and are happy to share their experiences and offer support.”

Resources and networks like Future Women and Wāhine Connect for women in the NZ health sector can also provide valuable support.

Challenge the idea of “women’s work”

The workforce remains highly gender-segregated by industry and occupation. But this is beginning to change, and there are more opportunities for you to challenge the norms of what women ‘should’ do in the workforce.

Industries like construction are recognising that women are an untapped resource. Companies like Roberts Co are seeking to make the industry more welcoming to women by building more flexibility into the job and creating a pipeline of women in construction via scholarships and training programs.

“Women are fantastic in the construction industry, and they bring a completely different lens to the job, which every industry can benefit from,” says Mirams.

Say ‘yes’ to new opportunities

Are you more likely to say no to new opportunities because you think you’re not ready or not quite fit for the task? Mirams suggests you change your response.

“When I was first offered the job at Roberts, I doubted my ability to build a company,” she says. “I think women can doubt themselves in a lot of situations, or if they feel that they’ve been invited to an event just because they're a woman, they’ll say ‘no’.

“I say to women all the time, ‘just say yes’. Get in the room and network. It doesn't matter if you're invited because you're a woman. What matters is that you are there.”

Upskill on soft skills

Soft skills like clear communication can help to build your confidence in having difficult conversations, negotiating a pay rise or giving a presentation at work.

“A lack of belief in our soft skills can hold us back, and their value is often overlooked,” says Read. “But when we upskill on soft skills, we often realise that our technical skills are already pretty well established.

“There are courses that you can do to build your soft skills,” adds Read. “If you want to build your confidence at skills in public speaking, for instance, you could look into a Toastmasters course.”

Consider your options

If you feel that the culture of your workplace is impacting your confidence, it may be time to look for another employer who will provide genuine support and opportunities for growth.

“There's so much opportunity out there at the moment,” says Mirams. “If you are in an organisation that doesn't support you, that is impacting your ability to perform to your best, or that’s impacting your personal life, look at other options. There are many companies that are serious about inclusion and creating nurturing environment for everyone.”

Systemic barriers contribute to the gender confidence gap, so the responsibility to close this gap should be with governments and employers first – not individuals. But there are ways you can challenge the confidence gap and build your own self-assurance at work. The more confident you feel, the more likely you are to reach your full potential.

Independent research conducted by Nature of behalf of SEEK, interviewing 4800 Australians annually. Published March 2023.