Women lose out on leadership roles because of men’s ‘honest overconfidence’

30 Nov

The gender gap in top leadership roles is apparently not down to conscious discrimination but to the male tendency to be overconfident about past performances. In other words, men tend to enhance their previous achievements, while women play them down or are more realistic about them.

That’s the finding of a study from Columbia Business School, which aimed to look at the underlying causes of the gender leadership gap rather than attributing it to discrimination during the recruitment and selection process. It carried out an experiment to isolate the effect of gender differences on female leadership, which involved men and women recalling their previous year’s performances, and choosing a group leader for financial reward.

The researchers found that both genders exaggerated their performances: women rated theirs 15% higher than it was, but men consistently rated theirs 30% higher. When both men and women had an incentive to lie, they lied even more the higher the incentive. However, while women lied as frequently as men, they didn’t exaggerate their performance to the same degree. Men’s overconfidence in their abilities led to women being selected for a leadership role a third less often.

So, what can we take away from this? Columbia Business School professor Ernesto Reuben said: “It’s not just a matter of telling men not to lie — because they honestly believe their performance is 30% better than it really is. Similarly, it’s not as if you can simply tell women they should inflate their own sense of overconfidence to be on par with that of men.”

However, understanding and acknowledging this tendency could help prevent firms overlooking women for top roles just because they haven’t bragged about their achievements. Recruiters should consider male overconfidence and ask for evidence or references to back up the exaggerated claims, rather than accepting them as proof of performance. Also, women could benefit from being coached into owning, celebrating and communicating their achievements in a confident – but not overconfident – manner.


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