Closing the gender 'confidence gap'
Systemic bias has long impacted women’s confidence at work. Structural inequalities, such as the gender pay gap and an under-representation of women in leadership roles, 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.

“Gender stereotypes continue to limit opportunities for women at work and in society, so we need to acknowledge that it can be difficult for women to feel confident in themselves,” says SEEK’s Resident Psychologist Sabina Read.

“But this is not just about women, this is about equality, and everyone stands to benefit when we challenge gender biases.”

Signs of the ‘confidence gap’

A gender confidence gap can be seen at almost every point of employment. Research for 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. While just 49% of women feel confident negotiating different aspects of a role, whereas 66% of men feel the same way.

The data also shows that women are less confident during interviews than men (41% versus 64%) and face-to-face presentations (52% versus 64%).

“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 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.”

When your whole team feels confident, your whole business stands to benefit. As a leader or manager, here are five ways you can create an environment that encourages confidence at work.

1. Normalise flexibility

Boutique construction company Roberts Co is building flexibility into the sector, which makes women feel more confident about joining the industry and thriving at work.

In 2018, Roberts Co won the stage-one contract for Sydney’s Concord Hospital redevelopment by tendering for a five-day-a-week schedule – an industry first in Australia. Now the NSW and Victorian governments are pursuing reforms that will require tenderers on infrastructure projects to sign up to five-day work weeks.

“Women are an untapped market for the construction industry,” says Alison Mirams, Executive Chair at Roberts Co. “And one of the biggest inhibitors to women coming into the industry is the requirement to work six days a week.

“We've pushed to remove Saturday work so that everyone can have more balance, but this kind of change also supports female participation, removes the need to negotiate more flexible conditions and makes them feel more confident that they have a valuable role to play in this industry.”

2. Address cultural barriers

An inclusive culture supports confidence by ensuring that no one’s needs or experiences are overlooked.

“An inclusive workplace culture has inclusive practices, like a gender balance on interview panels,” says Read.

Employers like Roberts Co also have strong policies and standards in relation to site amenities for all workers. This includes breastfeeding rooms at all work sites to support women returning from parental leave.

“Women need to feel that they have an equal place at work,” says Mirams. “Culture can send a very clear message about who is welcome and who is not.”

3. Let women see who they can be

Women are underrepresented in key decision-making roles across almost all industries in Australia.

“Much of it comes down to ‘you can't be what you can't see’, but when there is more equal representation of women in leadership, other women tend to feel more confident about their own career progression opportunities,” says Read.

Roberts Co has a 50:50 gender split across its executive leadership team and is seeking to achieve the balance across its workforce.

“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.

4. Provide mentoring and sponsorship

Investing in women’s career success can also help to build their confidence at work.

Roberts Co runs a sponsorship program through the Cultivate sponsorship app, which aims to help organisations attract and retain talented women and build their confidence and skills to progress into leadership.

“One of the last sessions is a ‘day in the life’, where sponsors and sponsees essentially trade places to gain a better understanding of each other,” say Mirams. “In a prior program at another company, one of the women sponsees got her male sponsor to start his working day at her house at 6.30am, and he experienced getting the kids ready and doing the school run.

“These kinds of programs can help build confidence in a number of ways,” adds Mirams. “They can build women’s skills and also foster relationships based on a mutual understanding.”

5. Commit to equal pay

New Zealand’s gender pay gap is approximately 10%. Read says closing the gap can help build confidence among women at work.

“It's difficult for anyone to feel confident in themselves – and in their employer – if they’re paid less for who they are and not for what they do,” she says.

At Roberts Co, transparent pay bands apply to all employees.

“For 25% of the women we've newly employed, we've had to increase their pay by up to 40% on what they were previously making,” says Mirams. “When we tell them what they’ll be paid, they often say, ‘but that’s so much money’, and we tell them that’s what they are worth.”

The systems and processes in your workplace impact the way people feel – and behave –at work. Resources like New Zealand’s national body for workplace diversity and inclusion, DiversityWorks, offer tools and guides for building gender equity across your business, so you can help to close the gender confidence gap.

Independent research conducted by Nature of behalf of SEEK, interviewing 4000 Kiwis annually. Published March 2023.