Women in business are often told they need to have confidence to succeed. Believe in yourself, it’s said, and you can do anything!
The trouble with this statement is that ‘confidence’ can be a tricky word, colloquially speaking. Albert Bandura in his book, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, says
“Confidence is a nondescript term that refers to strength of belief but does not necessarily specify what the certainty is about. I can be supremely confident that I will fail at an endeavor.”
As the title of Bandura’s book indicates, the term that better describes the kind of self-belief that leaders need is actually ‘self-efficacy’.
Which is… what, exactly?
Bandura describes it as ‘[the] belief in one’s capabilities, that one can produce given levels of attainment’. A 2010 financial education report by T. Hira defines self-efficacy as ‘having the confidence in one’s ability to deal with a situation without being overwhelmed’.
The report, Women & Money: Factors influencing women’s financial decision-making, by Professor Amalia Di Iorio, director of La Trobe University’s MBA program, and RMIT’s Professor Roslyn Russell, notes that:
Psychologists have found that if a person has lower levels of self-efficacy they are more likely to focus on feelings of failure rather than success. People with higher levels of self-efficacy are more likely to cope better in adverse situations (Park and Folkman, 1997). Therefore it is not surprising that the concept of self-efficacy is important when considering a person’s ability to successfully deal with financial issues.
So if ‘confidence’ in this context means having a strong belief, whether in something positive or negative, then self-efficacy is about having the strong, positive belief that you have the capacity and the skills to achieve your goals.
This distinction is important. An off-the-cuff comment by a Hewlett-Packard senior executive to an interviewer for The McKinsey Quarterly suggested that the company’s female employees were generally less likely to apply for a job unless they very closely matched the selection criteria, while men would apply if they only met around 60% of the requirements. This reticence to step forward is confirmed in studies cited in articles like the Harvard Business Review’s Nice Girls Don’t Ask and the book The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know by US journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman.
Even where there is no difference in the quality of the performance, women are more likely than men to underrate their abilities and job performances, are less likely to negotiate for a raise and are more likely to express doubt about their careers. A recent Fairfax article about the disparity in maths scores between boys and girls notes that the gap appeared to be the result of differences in self-efficacy, not ability.
If there is no measurable difference in the quality of performance, then, the difference comes in how people think about what they do. Perhaps it’s as Hamlet said: for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
Ignoring how that particular family drama played out for the moment, what can we take from this (apart from the fact that Hamlet clearly never had a decent cup of Melbourne coffee)?
Perhaps it’s time for women to eschew mere confidence in favour of looking their own abilities square in the eye, assessing them with cold-blooded objectivity and then stepping up to say not ‘I think maybe I can’ but ‘I know I will’.
It won’t resolve all the issues faced by women in leadership, but if we can move from generalised confidence to the strong belief that we have the knowledge, skills and ability to succeed, women will have a clearer vision of where they want to go and how to get there.
Author: Narrelle Harris
Academic Advisor: Professor Amalia Di Iorio
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