Women in Leadership: Gender Bias and the ‘Confidence Gap’

May 5, 2015

This post was originally written by Jennifer and published on Education Week’s opinion blog, Finding Common Ground.

May is a time of celebrations and leavings in education. Folks exit out of the profession, move schools, transition to new adventures. While this is just an observation and not a research study, I have noticed three of my female colleagues have been encouraged to find work elsewhere. They aren’t ‘strong enough for the role’ or they don’t have ‘enough clinical expertise’ or have the ‘right skill set.

In the same month, I have also noticed several of my male colleagues are making pro-active decisions to ‘take jobs.’ In the press releases it is implied that these individuals chose to move forward, to take on a new challenge. Now, the women I speak of were also given a warm send off in the communications put out to the public. Everyone knows how to ‘spin’ the transition. And, yet, these leavings have given me pause to think about the role gender plays in moving on or moving up.

It is true that it isn’t just men who are forward thinking and moving up. Women, too, are taking action. Hillary Clinton is running for president, Carly Fiorina is thinking about running, and Ellen Pao just sued Kleiner Perkins (and lost) for gender discrimination. Women are bringing their voices into the world all the time. And, still, I know too many who feel intimidated to do so. They shy away from thinking big and speaking out.

In The Atlantic last May, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman wrote an article entitled “The Confidence Gap.” In the article, they wrote,

“There is a particular crisis for women–a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities.”

I find this idea of ‘the confidence gap’ to be spot on in so many interactions I have with female educators at all levels. “How could I even apply for that job?” one might ask me.

A woman in many (most?) cases will talk herself out of applying for a position saying to herself, “I don’t have all the competencies they are looking for so I couldn’t possibly apply.” A man will say, “You know, I have 2 out of the 10 skills they mention. Sounds good to me. I’m going for it.” And who applies? Men. And, who has the opportunity to get the job? You get the point. Infuriating.

Is it a confidence gap and/or something else at play when at the conferences I attend I see a significant number of men doing the keynotes, being named ‘thought leaders,’ and conducting the ‘featured speaker’ sessions. (The answer is yes.) And yes, these individuals are worthy of the opportunity. They have done research, written books, created institutes. It just makes me think, why don’t we see more women? Is it the fabled ol’ boys club at work? Or more?

Many barriers exist in the advancement of women – family needs, work-life balance, gender bias in the workplace. It is a mix of complex factors at play all at once. It isn’t easy to untangle, but we must acknowledge it is quite a hairball.

I know as I write this someone will say that I am diminishing men’s contributions and being sexist as men are worthy of the positions they take. Others will ask why I have ignored ethnicity and race in this conversation and what happened to bringing up how few people of color are on the stage. I am fully aware of I what can and cannot do in a given blog and in this blog I choose to focus on women. Not discounting all other filters, I am ‘renting the gender filter.’ I am looking through the lens of gender and seeing a lack of representation in educational positions of leadership and a discomfort in the minds of many women.

After 26 years as a teacher, coach, professional developer and consultant, and as a woman moving into an ‘eldering phase’ in life, I viscerally recognize the importance of speaking up and speaking out. Aspiring women leaders and those in leadership positions currently need our support to step up and express themselves with confidence. The confidence gap is alive and well and we need to close it.

About Jennifer Abrams

Jennifer Abrams

Jennifer Abrams considers herself a "voice coach," helping others learn how to best use their voices – be it collaborating on a team, presenting in front of an audience, coaching a colleague and supervising an employee. Jennifer holds a Master's degree in Education from Stanford University and a Bachelor's degree in English from Tufts University. She lives in Palo Alto, California. Jennifer's publications include Having Hard Conversations, The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicating, Collaborating & Creating Community and Hard Conversations Unpacked – the Whos, the Whens and the What Ifs. She has also created a Corwin Press e-course by the same name.

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