Women in tech: Confidence isn't the problem

clock • 6 min read

it’s too easy and convenient to point to women’s apparent lack of confidence as the key explanation for their under-representation at all levels in technology

Throughout the course of a number of interviews with some seriously high achieving women within the field of technology about their participation in the Women in Technology Excellence Awards, one of the most commonly recurring topics is that of confidence - and whether a lack of it is holding women in technology back.

It's something women tend to hear time and time again whenever they question whether or not their workplace or similar organisations offer them the same level of opportunity extended to their male peers. Women are exhorted to lean in, publicise their achievements to a greater extent, network more effectively. It's part of a subtle but nonetheless pervasive message that women are to blame for their own under-representation within technology. If women simply behaved more like men, then we wouldn't have an issue. Voila! Problem solved!

This narrative around confidence being a quality that women instinctively lack is a seductive one for businesses because it allows those around the executive table - still likely to be predominantly populated by white men - to claim that the problem isn't structural. Instead, they argue that the problem of homogenous corporate culture lies with those who are under-represented. Women just need to speak up! Often, those making this argument point at the success of some genuinely exceptional women in technology to prove their point that the opportunities for women are there - women simply have to be brave enough to take them.

Like all pervasive but fundamentally false narratives, the "woman wracked by self-doubt," trope is crafted around a kernel of truth. It's a generalisation, but the trait of modesty is far more likely to occur in women than men - a tendency described in more detail here. I only have to review my interview transcripts from the last few weeks to get a measure of how likely successful women are to attribute at least some of their success to good fortune rather than their own hard work, ability and resilience.

Women often temper their confidence with modesty to avoid being considered difficult or overbearing

Women often temper their confidence with modesty because they know that failure to do that can saddle them with a reputation for being difficult or overbearing, whereas a more outwardly confident man is perceived far more positively. Perhaps the best-known study in this field is the one conducted by Colombia Business School featuring the venture capitalist Heidi Roizen - and her fictional male alter ego Howard. This simple study demonstrated with brutal clarity that when women earn power they are perceived as unlikeable and selfish. Students didn't want to work in Team Heidi; Team Howard was perceived as a far more agreeable option.

Frustrating as the persistence of this scenario is, it's too easy and convenient to point to women's apparent lack of confidence as the key explanation for their under-representation at all levels in technology. The reality is more complex. When you start to dig into it, the evidence for some apparently universally accepted truths about female behaviours - such as the lower male threshold for applying for jobs which is commonly quoted - seems a little thin on the ground. Another example, the one wheeled out most frequently to justify gender pay gaps, is the reticence of women when it comes to asking for more money. Again, this is another area where the sheer weight of anecdote may have been burying data pointing in another direction. Women do ask for pay rises almost as much as men do. We're just significantly less likely to get them.

When women take on their first roles in the technology industry there is unlikely to be a confidence deficit between the genders. Around a quarter of STEM graduates are female - a proportion that has remained reasonably constant over the last five years. If a young woman has graduated in such a discipline, she is, by definition, likely to be confident in her abilities. Equally, many more female entrants into technology (and certainly plenty of the senior women I have spoken with over the last few weeks) have come via other disciplines such as finance or project and programme management. Again, being able to move from one business discipline to another - often through a decision to learn technical skills in their own time - doesn't smack of a lack of confidence.

More women get stuck at entry levels within organisations

Furthermore, as women move into their 40s, they typically report higher levels of confidence in their abilities on a level to equal that of their male peers. If women are confident at the outset of their careers, and confident as they become more experienced - what happens in between? Whatever it is it's leading to very high attrition rates for women employed in technology - more than 50 per cent report leaving their technology careers at the mid-point of their careers. The existence of a broken rung on the leadership ladder for women was explored in more detail by McKinsey in 2019 and the outcome is that more women get stuck at entry levels within organisations. The problem then becomes more acute the further up the ladder you look.

A woman who is employed in a particularly male dominated technology realm explains her frustrations with the different advice given to men and women about promotion - and how it damages women's confidence.

"It chips away at your confidence because you constantly see people around you who are less skilled or less experienced promoted above you just because it's an assumption that it's their path. It's almost like men have an automatic right to promotion whereas women are advised to do the job, for six months for nothing and see how we get on. See what we get."

That women have to prove their competence in advance - and for free - is an example of the long tail of microaggressions that many women have had to push past to advance their careers in technology. Examples include vendors addressing their pitches to the wrong people and being talked over and interrupted. "They don't even know they're doing it," says one female CTO. A black senior engineer describes being rejected for a development role earlier in her career because she was too "bubbly," to fit in with a group of male developers. A female coder recalls being described an "enthusiastic hobbyist."

Some of the stories are jaw dropping. Women are literally being told that they don't fit the mould of what technology leaders should look like. It's not difficult to see why women's confidence takes a beating - or why attrition rates are so high. Increasing numbers of technology employers are making diversity and inclusion programs a priority, no doubt aware that talented graduates are actively seeking out employers with strong focus on diversity. All of the women I have spoken with believe that the desire to increase diversity at their organisations is genuine - and bearing fruit.

Every organisation taking diversity to the heart of its corporate agenda has demonstrated an understanding that the reasons women are so few in number at the corporate table are complex - and are culture driven. These organisations realise that it isn't women at fault for not making themselves heard. It's culture that's the problem.

The Women in Technology Excellence Awards are open for nominations of outstanding women from around the world across categories including Digital Leader, Role Model and Transformation Leader of the Year.


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