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Want gender-balanced leadership? Challenge the confidence myth

We still often hear business leaders suggest the lack of gender diversity in leadership positions is because women lack confidence or aren’t assertive enough. But that’s misleading and unhelpful, says Diversity Partners’ CEO Dr Katie Spearritt.

In this Q&A blog, Katie shares some practical strategies that organisations can take to challenge gender stereotypes and focus on structural change to support gender balanced leadership.

What’s your concern with messaging around telling women to be more confident?

I think the real concern is the messaging is based on a faulty premise – that’s there’s a confidence gap between men and women. In fact, recent global research shows women see themselves just as capable of men of succeeding in professional roles.

What’s more, the lack of confidence theory is part of a broader narrative that women are somehow different to men on things like negotiation, or appetite for risk. That’s a faulty narrative. In 2018, Harvard Business Review published a significant research article called “What most people get wrong about men and women: Research shows the sexes aren’t so different”.

The authors argue it’s the context that explains any sex differences in the workplace: “If we continue on with stereotypes of sex differences – specifically that women are lacking in confidence – the big concern is they get exaggerated and negatively influence behaviours.”

What are the dangers with women feeling they continually need to “fix” themselves?

I cringe each time I hear speakers at leadership conferences promoting ways to help women to become more confident, to assert themselves more at work.

For a start, this type of narrative reinforces a faulty gender stereotype and makes a perceived gender difference seem somehow natural or fixed.

It’s also part of a DIY school of thought that was popular back in the 1960s and 1970s – where the emphasis on getting women into leadership focused only on women. Back then, and still today, it gives women false hope – that somehow asking for a raise or putting yourself forward for a promotion will achieve greater equality.

History shows us this approach doesn’t sufficiently address organisational and broader legislative and cultural challenges that hold women back.

Nor does it address the reality that women are actually more likely to be penalised for showing assertiveness at work – because of the implicit gender bias associating women with warmth rather than competence and assertiveness.

The big danger with women being urged to ‘fix’ themselves is that it diverts attention and focus from the importance of addressing organisational structures, company practices and processes that entrench gender bias – consciously or unconsciously.

We’re better off focusing on structural change, as a number of experts like Catherine Fox and Professor Isabel Metz of Melbourne University have thoughtfully argued. The title of Catherine Fox’s book ‘Stop Fixing Women’ says it all!

The big danger with women being urged to ‘fix’ themselves is that it diverts attention and focus from the importance of addressing organisational structures, company practices and processes that entrench gender bias – consciously or unconsciously.

So, where should we spend our energy and focus?

I don’t think we need to spend any time focusing on improving women’s confidence – it’s just too simplistic and unproductive. I think we should question the sex-difference narrative instead. I’d like to see us question leadership stereotypes – based on associations of leadership with assertiveness, and men with assertiveness (and women with warmth) – and encourage greater diversity in our notions of what makes a good leader.

Most of all, I’d like to see more organisations focus on ways in which entrenched gender biases hold women back from leadership positions.

For example, here’s two unconscious gender biases (from research by business psychologist Professor Binna Kandola) we often explore in workshops:

  • Women’s success in management positions is more likely to be attributed to external factors (such as a good team) while men’s success is more likely to be attributed to skill or personality.
    The gender of the people currently doing the role will influence who is seen as most suitable for it.
Can you share five practical things leaders can do to promote diversity and challenge the stereotypes?
  1. Make job requirements for success explicit, so that people know what they’ll be assessed against.
  2. Explain the process involved in hiring (some people opt out from applying because they don’t understand the steps in the process).
  3. Monitor promotions and career development by genders.
  4. Highlight different role models of leaders – those with different skill sets, talents, backgrounds – to inspire more diverse candidate lists.

Have a question for us? Like to speak with us about ways to progress diversity and inclusion?

We support organisations, large and small, public and private sector, across Australia and New Zealand. Since 2009, more than 350 organisations have chosen to partner with us. Contact us at and we’ll respond within one working day.

About Dr Katie Spearritt

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