Career Moves

Female ‘Confidence Gap’ Cited as Prime Factor in Career Success Disparity

A ‘grievous gap between competence and confidence’’

by Merilee Kern

In business, there is an ugly yet undeniable truth: every single day, talented, hardworking and deserving women are passed over for promotions. While it’s easy to blame a corporate culture that favors men, women’s leadership authority Grace Killelea—founder and CEO of Half The Sky Leadership Institute and author of “The Confidence Effect: Every Woman’s Guide to the Attitude That Attracts Success,” identifies a different personal accountability-driven culprit: a shockingly prevalent and grievous disparity in confidence. While men are prone to overestimate their abilities, all too often women sell themselves short and needlessly languish in marginalized careers.

“Realizing a high level of achievement requires women to speak out, take risks and assume leadership positions with perceptible self-assurance, but too many otherwise qualified women are not living up to their full potential,” says Killelea. “This is an astonishingly widespread phenomenon resulting in egregious opportunity loss for the individual, the organization and ultimately the U.S. economy at large. Aspiring women must become the CEOs of their own career. To do this, they need to become more inherently confident with the kind of authenticity that will get them noticed and take their careers to new heights.”

Codifying Confidence

To help success-minded women connect their competence to confidence and gain the professional achievement they deserve, Killelea, offers these insights:

  • One of the greatest barriers for women is our reticence to raise our hands, ask for what we want and be noticed. This lack of confidence appears as a weakness. It makes women seem less comfortable with risk taking and decisiveness, both of which are critical competencies for senior leaders. Right now many people are asking why women have a crisis of confidence. My reply is that it’s not as important for a woman in the workforce today to crack the code or to know “why” she lacks confidence; it’s much more critical to provide her with the tools to course correct. 

It is NEVER too late to learn the skills to make you appear more confident even if all the internal factors are not addressed. Some people call this “faking it ‘til you make it.” I say “suit up, show up and start where you are.” The appearance of confidence is as beneficial as actually feeling confident.
  • It’s not enough to keep doing what you are doing and hoping that someone will notice you. We have to be seen as more than someone who produces results. We must be seen as powerful and with potential to do more. The Center for Talent Integration did a fantastic study on the elements of “executive presence”, an often-used term with a meaning very few truly understand. In talent management discussions you will hear executive leaders say that a woman leader needs to improve her “executive presence”. Yet this is rarely discussed in performance reviews or feedback with direct reports. The study highlights that many senior executives perceive “executive presence” with “gravitas” or how we handle ourselves in every type of situation – good and bad. According to the study, at the heart of “gravitas” is confidence; the ability to “stand over your own power.” A woman who can stand her ground in the face of disagreement is considered confident.
    Apology and the ability to take accountability is a critical leadership competence. But it is not powerful to be “sorry” for everything. Learning to choose our words, to speak with more distinction is important.
  • Another skill of a confident leader is speaking up and not always waiting one’s turn. In her Ted Talk, Sheryl Sandberg discussed how women in a group will hold up their hand to ask a question while a man will just make his comments, illustrating how this can be seen as less confident and less powerful. She admitted to being surprised herself when she didn’t call on the women who had their hands raised but acknowledged the men who just spoke up.
  • There is an enormous physical component to the perception of confidence. How we walk, talk, stand, move and respond to others dictates if others see us as confident. Dr. Amy Cuddy from Harvard University has one of the most popular and impactful Ted Talks of 2013. A social psychologist who studies power and a professor at one of the most competitive business schools, Cuddy and her research partners discovered some startling facts. A two-minute “power pose” (think of how Wonder Woman stands: hands on hips, feet spread apart, head up, eyes forward) has an immediate and significant shift on our brain chemistry. It affects our testosterone and cortisol levels. Their studies showed that people who do a two-minute power pose prior to an interview had better results than low-power posers. Low-power posers are folded in, arms and legs crossed, hunched in a chair.To quote Dr. Cuddy, “Our bodies change our mind, our mind changes our behavior and our behavior changes outcomes.” 

You can’t power pose in front of your boss or peers (but it’s great behind closed doors) but women can certainly walk taller, make eye contact and take up more physical space. If you stand in the shadows you will never be seen.
  • Don’t start your sentences with, “I’m sorry to bother you but…” Apology and the ability to take accountability is a critical leadership competence. But it is not powerful to be “sorry” for everything. Learning to choose our words, to speak with more distinction is important. More and more research discusses the women who speak with an “uptick” to their sentences. This is not just a young woman’s challenge. Women who don’t think about their tone and tenor when they speak can be seen as indecisive and unsure. 

Another example where language can diminish confidence is when a woman doesn’t simply say “thank you” when she is praised. We can be dismissive of our own power when someone compliments us on a job well done and we say “I just got lucky” or “Anybody could have done this.” Learning to just say “thank you” is a very powerful tool for women.

Killelea urges that confidence can be learned and, while it is being learned, it can be displayed. “We can reprogram ourselves to show up differently almost immediately. Having the awareness that competence and confidence need to be connected really can shift how women are perceived in the workforce. Getting on the radar screens of hiring managers, talent leaders and senior executives by exhibiting more confidence is one of the ways women will start to take on more and more senior roles in organizations.”

Confidence is often the X Factor in career decisions, job offers and promotions. Luckily, we each have the power to change the way we are perceived by others. With this truth well in mind, Killelea penned “The

Confidence Effect” to help women stand out as both competent and confident to realize the professional achievement they deserve. It teaches women how to speak out, take risks and assume leadership positions with assurance. The book also shatters the counterproductive “good girl” conditioning, providing practical tools that will help readers showcase their valuable qualities and skills—without being cocky or annoying. Working women who take heed will be well on their way to building, or bolstering, a professional brand that attracts attention, assets and career advancement.



Branding, business and entrepreneurship success pundit, Merilee Kern, is an influential media voice who serves as Chief PR & Communications Strategist for multiple agencies. She also serves as the Executive Editor of “The Luxe List.” Merilee may be reached online at Follow her on Twitter here: and Facebook here: