December 8 2011

Self-Confidence Biggest Indicator of Female Leadership

Sabrina Schaeffer

I frequently push back on the notion that widespread discrimination is to blame for the majority of differences between men and women when it comes to wages, positions of leadership, and (under)representation in certain fields like math and science. Instead, I argue that different choices – a function of both biology and societal and cultural norms – better explain these differences, and sometimes disparities, between the sexes.

But because I embrace this perspective, I also keep an eye out for interesting research that might further explain why men and women make these different choices. Recently I highlighted a study from Scientific American that suggested men and women simply categorize the world differently – a trait that helps explain not only why there are more men in leadership positions, but also why they gravitate toward these positions more frequently than women.

Now new research conducted by Leslie Pratch, a clinical psychologist, and written about in Harvard Business Review finds that self-confidence is the most important factor in predicting leadership for women. As Pratch explains, “self-confidence is one of the elements of active coping, a set of behaviors central to executive success.” And according to her research “the only measure that predicted leadership for men and women alike was an overall measure of active coping that indicates the ability to respond adaptively to stress and to grow.”

More interesting, however, is that expectations for how men and women should behave in positions of leadership influence leadership styles. While women, Pratch explains, “are expected to display high levels of social (communal) qualities,” men are expected to demonstrate qualities “associated with acting or exerting power.” In many ways, these external expectations for how men and women ought to behave give men more leeway in terms of how they lead without generating “negative reactions.” So for men, where self-confidence is expected, the quality did not predict a man’s potential for leadership.

For women, on the other hand, self-confidence was a cue that she would be able to “identify and face difficulties” easily and “non-defensively,” making self-confidence a much more important indicator of leadership success. Pratch explains that women “must be stronger copers in order to transcend the constraints placed on their leadership style.”

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