Last month, we looked at how many of the most important qualities of an exceptional leader appear to occur more naturally and frequently in women than men: The Way Women Lead. This month we’re looking a step further at how women fare in an assessment of those skills from their managers, how they assess themselves, and what this might mean for the leaders of the future.


A recent article from Harvard Business School outlined some fascinating research, which revealed that in spite of the poor representation of women in the top political jobs in the USA, the general perception of women’s ability to lead is generally quite similar to men’s abilities. This conclusion was reached using thousands of 360-degree reviews of managers of both genders in corporate positions.


According to their analysis, women outscored men on 17 of the 19 leadership capabilities that separate excellent leaders from average or poor ones.


“Women were rated as excelling in taking initiative, acting with resilience, practising self-development, driving for results, and displaying high integrity and honesty. In fact, they were thought to be more effective in 84% of the competencies that we most frequently measure.”


The article goes on to ask the question of why, if women are just as competent as men, they are not reflected proportionally in the top jobs out there – whether those jobs are political or corporate. Some of this can be attributed to deep-rooted cultural biases against women, and sometimes these are entirely unconscious – yet they exist, and can impact on people’s decision making, whether they realise it or not. And the unfortunate irony is that this bias is quite unwarranted, as demonstrated by the HBS research.


The real anomaly comes when women are asked to assess themselves. In that exercise, they regularly score themselves much lower than the ratings given to them by management, and one of the most interesting of those areas rated is self-confidence.


The trends reveal that there is a wide divergence between the younger genders in levels of self-confidence, particularly in the under-25 age group, with young men far more confident in their abilities than women. At age 40, confidence levels merge between the two, then diverge again after the age of 60 – but with women feeling more self-confident at this age, rather than men, which leads to this fascinating concluding fact: “According to our data, men gain just 8.5 percentile points in confidence from age 25 to their 60+ years. Women, on the other hand, gain 29 percentile points.” So while they may start out low, women’s investment in their development and self-belief pays off massively the further along in their careers they progress.


We know that women are less likely than men to apply for a job if they don’t believe they meet the majority of the criteria, and these findings tie in with that, certainly in the youngest age bracket; which means that women don’t get onto the managerial ladder as early as men, reinforcing their lack of self confidence, and doing nothing to challenge that unconscious bias – perhaps partly responsible for the lack of opportunity given to younger women to shine as brightly as their male counterparts.


As a psychologist and leadership coach, I would echo the HBS call for organisations to think hard about the candidates in front of them, and to base their recruitment decisions on competence as well as confidence. It’s also worth examining the coaching and mentorship that’s on offer for all junior staff in your organisation, as well, to make sure that self-belief is fostered just as much as core job competencies. This is how we can encourage our young women to grow into the leaders they are capable of becoming; it’s how we close the self-confidence gap between under25s; and it’s how we begin to break down those unnecessary, unconscious biases which are holding us all back.


The full HBS article can be read here: