By Dina Gerdeman for Working Knowledge
Women make up more than half of the labor force in the United States and earn almost 60 percent of advanced degrees, yet they bring home less pay and fill fewer seats in the C-suite than men, particularly in male-dominated professions like finance and technology.
This gender gap is due in part to “occupational sorting,” with men choosing careers that pay higher wages than women do, labor economists say. For example, women represent only 26 percent of US workers employed in computer and math jobs, according to the Department of Labor.
New research identifies one reason women might be shying away from certain professions: They lack confidence in their ability to compete in fields that men are stereotypically believed to perform more strongly in, such as science, math, and technology.
Women are also more reluctant to share their ideas in group discussions on these subjects. And even when they have talent—and are actually told they are high-achievers in these subjects—women are more likely than men to shrug off the praise and lowball their own abilities.
This weak self-confidence may hold some women back as they count themselves out of pursuing prestigious roles in professions they believe they won’t excel in, despite having the skills to succeed, says Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Katherine B. Coffman.
“Our beliefs about ourselves are important in shaping all kinds of important decisions, such as what colleges we apply to, which career paths we choose, and whether we are willing to contribute ideas in the workplace or try to compete for a promotion,” Coffman says. “If talented women in STEM aren’t confident, they might not even look at those fields in the first place. It’s all about how good we think we are, especially when we ask ourselves, ‘What does it make sense for me to pursue?’”
Coffman has recently co-written an article in the American Economic Review as well as two working papers, all aimed at studying men’s and women’s beliefs about their own abilities.
“WOMEN ARE MORE LIKELY THAN MEN TO SHRUG OFF THE
PRAISE AND LOWBALL THEIR OWN ABILITIES.”
What she found, in essence, is that gender stereotypes distort our views of both ourselves and others—and that may be especially troubling for women, since buying into those stereotypes could be creating a bleak self-image that is setting them back professionally.
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