Closing the Gender Gap with Confidence

We’ve come a long way in promoting gender diversity and equality in the workplace. But in 2018 there is still a lack of female representation in leadership. In fact, the imbalance becomes more pronounced, the higher you climb the organizational ladder. The question is: how do we move forward? I believe one important aspect is overcoming the Confidence Gap. Here are my key personal lessons for women looking to advance their career.
|Written by Sabine Mueller


female executives symbolizing the narrowing of the gender gap

I regularly write about gender diversity. It’s a topic I am extremely passionate about and it remains one of my top priorities as a female business leader. Over the years, we have made great strides towards improving the position of women in the workplace. But we’re not where we need to be yet. Particularly at the executive level, women remain underrepresented. How can we move forward on our journey towards gender parity?

As the CEO of DHL Consulting, a large part of my job is talent management, which is an important means to establish diversity throughout the organization. Over the last decade, many of our talents left our organization for a job with Deutsche Post DHL Group. When analyzing the numbers, several noteworthy gender differences surface.

My Observations on Women’s Career Progression

When taking a closer look at our statistics, I can make two observations:

Firstly, when women leave our organization they usually hold more junior positions than male leavers do.

70% of our female employees leave when they have reached the positions of consultant or senior consultant. Only 35% of male employees leave at this point in their career, the majority stays to get promoted. Consequently, most men leave when they are project managers, associate partners or partners.

Secondly, when an employee leaves at a more junior level, their probability of landing a higher position with their next employer is low.

65% of our project managers, associate partners or partners get a higher position when joining DPDHL Group; only 20% of consultants and senior consultants accomplish the same. This does not correlate with performance. On average, our male and female consultants perform the same.

My conclusion is twofold: It appears that many women do not push to obtain a leadership position when they are with our organization, even though based on their competences they could, just as much as men do. And secondly: because women typically leave our organization when they have not yet reached a leadership position, the probability of them landing a higher position is lower than for men.

So, if competence and performance are not the deciding factors for these gender differences, what is it? In my opinion, a lot of it comes down to confidence. Sounds simple, but it isn’t.

The Confidence Gap Is What’s Holding Us Back

Research shows that there is a gender gap in self-confidence. Women tend to underestimate their abilities, whereas men overestimate theirs. (See for example this study by Bleidorn et al., 2016.)

I believe that this relative lack of self-confidence holds women back. Confidence also affects risk aversion and the willingness to take on a new challenge. Even though, there are many factors that are responsible for the gender gap, I am convinced that confidence plays a role in the discrepancies in career progression I observe in my organization. So, what can we do about this?

Closing the Confidence Gap – My Personal Advice

“Self-confidence can be learned, practiced and mastered – just like any other skill.” – Barrie Davenport
I agree – you can grow and cultivate confidence. And some of the key lessons I learned throughout my career boil down to self-confidence:


1. Take Charge of Your Development

I witness men actively promoting themselves for a higher position more often than I see women doing the same thing. Talk about your career targets and proactively position yourself for a promotion. If you wait to be asked, you may never get the promotion you want.

Another, but related, point is that women tend to take themselves out of the competition, because they do not consider themselves ready for the job. You will never be 100 percent ready. So, this is no reason to hold yourself back.


2. Face Your Fears of Failure

Fear is what often prevents us from taking a risk or challenging ourselves – actually, we are afraid to fail. To master self-confidence, we need to face these fears. To quote Margie Warrell,


Only by doing the very things we’re afraid of we can come to realize how little reason we ever had to fear. The only way to build confidence and courage is by acting with it.

Margie Warrell

I have said it before in one of my previous articles: We need to push ourselves hard enough to leave our comfort zone. A challenge is always a growth opportunity. Of course, nobody likes to make a mistake. And women, at times, even tend to overestimate the risk of failure. But small failures help to build resilience to cope with bigger failures. So, let go of your fear of failure and don’t hesitate when you have to step into (partly) unknown territory. This also means welcoming tough conversations and conflict, when necessary.


3. Make Your Voice Heard

Women need to make a point of expressing what they truly think and expect in the workplace. At high-level meetings, women are often in the minority. Despite this, you need to assert yourself in meetings and get your ideas across, without waiting to be asked for an opinion. In my experience, it helps to prepare to speak and ask the right questions. Consciously take on an active role in meetings, and do not allow yourself to shy away from entering the conversation.


4. Do Not Let Stereotypes Get In Your Way

We are raised with all kinds of ideas on how women are supposed to act. For men these expectations are typically different. Assertiveness and aggressiveness are seen as positive traits for men, associated with leadership abilities. For women, the same behavior is often interpreted as negative. Secondly, women are often too concerned with being likable. My advice: do it with a smile, but do not hold yourself back just to be liked. Stereotypes should not get in the way of your ability to express yourself and be true to yourself.


There is no quick fix for the gender disparity we still experience in the work place. There is a lack of female role models at the top, which only reinforces the issue. It’s a vicious circle that we need to break, because having more female leaders can inspire confidence in other women to progress in their careers and work towards executive positions themselves.

Nurturing your self-confidence is important for your personal road to self-actualization – both for women and men. As business leaders, we need to encourage this and solidify a culture within which self-assured, confident women are appreciated.

To all women aspiring to get ahead in their careers – don’t hide or sell yourself short, go out and lead!

Every time you enter a challenge, you are going outside your comfort zone, taking a risk and closing the confidence gap. And for that, thank you. We need more of you.

Katty Kay

What’s your view on the confidence gap and its significance for women’s career development? I look forward to exchanging experiences on my blog, or Twitter and LinkedIn channels.

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