Women are Missing in Leadership - Women's Confidence is Not to Blame


by Dr. Kristen Liesch

the “flat head” phenomenon

In her Ted talk, Dame Stephanie Shirley answers the question “Why do ambitious women have flat heads?”

“The first woman that, the only woman this,” Dame Shirley founded a pioneering all-woman software company in the UK ultimately valued at $3 billion and made millionnaires of 70 team members. She insists you can tell who the ambitious women are by the shape of their heads: “They are flat on top for being patted patronizingly.” 

Dame Shirley’s reflection is in stark contrast to the many many voices insisting that women, and their lack of self-confidence, are the “missing factor in women’s leadership.” 


A recent Forbes piece has garnered a great number of thumbs-up, lightbulbs and applause on LinkedIn, and it encourages women not to be afraid to self-promote - to know what they’re good at and to shine a light on their skills and expertise. This, no doubt, can be good advice to just about anyone.

It points readers to the great volume of research that contrasts women’s behaviour to men’s behaviour. For example, we know that men will apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, whereas women feel they need to meet 100%. We also know that men are promoted on potential (and their assertion of that potential) while women are promoted based on performance. It’s true that women are, largely, (socialized to be) more self-critical than their male peers. 

What the article suggests - and what we see prescribed all to often in self-help books aimed at women in the workplace - is for women to copy what men do. What is absolutely missing from the conversation on women’s lack of confidence are the questions:

Is this true?
Why do we see this phenomenon?
Who does it (not) serve?

(I’ll also add: “Isn’t this all just a little (or a lot) messed up?”)


Let’s explore... 


Are women really lacking in self-confidence?


Do you know a woman who is confident? Really confident?

I do. 


I am supremely self-confident (even, sometimes, about topics I really have no business being confident about - just ask my ex-husband). I have always had a degree of self-confidence that others found unnerving. My mom characterized it as “sass” when I was a kid, today she might kindly describe it as “assertiveness.”

I know another confident woman.

My partner, Anna.

In fact, together, we believe we can find a way to work together, and collaborate with others, to change the world. For real.

But there is a reason that we run our own business. Like the ambitious women Dame Shirley identifies by their flat heads, we were both patted on the head - and sometimes, pounded with a mallet - when we did those things women are told to do: self-promote, shine a light on our accomplishments, advocate for our innovative ideas.

I was recently talking to one of our brilliant Collaborative members, Sheri Spinks, a star in the supply chain/procurement space. She inspires women and inclusion leaders from all over the globe with her innovative and profit-driving strategies for advancing diversity and inclusion in her profession. I asked her to be frank: “Sheri, if every woman who hears your message were to walk into her workplace tomorrow and exhibit the kind of confidence that has contributed to a degree of your own personal success, do you think they would be well received?” Sheri paused. “No,” she said, “I don’t think the world of work - the leaders out there - could handle that…yet. There’s some work ahead of us.”

So, if there are confident women out there, and we aren’t - by some natural predisposition - wallflowers just too shy to bloom…



It’s not hard to leap from the experiences of many (once) confident, assertive women who’ve felt the patronizing pat on the head, to the sense that women just aren’t confident enough. At some point, though, you can’t blame the ambitious, confident woman from retreating just a little bit. When you’re not necessarily rewarded - even penalized sometimes - for it, you might just decide to fall into line or get out of it altogether. (If you’ve never heard of prescriptive stereotypes, and how both men/boys and women/girls are penalized for breeching them, you might want to check out this and this.)

Let’s back this one up a bit and take the first bit of research I highlighted, the fact that men will apply for a job when they’re only 60% qualified. This is the phenomenon in action.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a person, of any gender, to apply for a job with that degree of qualification. What I can tell you, though, is that even if the applicant is 100% qualified, the applicant named John will have a greater chance of getting the job than the applicant named Sarah, or the applicant named José. Maybe even, especially, in the case of competence, women face a dilemma men do not: the “competence/likeability dilemma” - a phenomenon I’ve written about before. Their competence might be acknowledged, but they won’t be perceived as “likeable.” 

So, what do we have here?
Gender discrimination, racial discrimination. Generally, a preference for confident male applicants. 

Where did this come from? 

We can point to all sorts of factors that contribute to the disproportionate amount of confidence that men exhibit, and some of it stems in childhood and continues to be reinforced. Boy children are rewarded more for, and given more opportunities to, stretch and test the limits of their abilities (see Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender.) Girl children are steered toward perfectionism and away from risk (see this great conversation on the effects of gendered socialization on career trajectories.)



Should we settle for the status quo?

How, exactly, do our organizations and institutions benefit from entertaining systems of hiring and promotion that pave the way for overconfident and incompetent individuals to reach the top ranks? Regardless of who we hire, should we be okay with promoting those whose promotion doesn’t ultimately benefit the organization?

In his widely shared piece, “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders,” Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic asserts that, “The truth of the matter is that pretty much anywhere in the world men tend to think that they are much smarter than women. Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent.” 

Ultimately, we are entertaining narratives that tell women:

“Be more confident, but exhibit it in these ways…”
“Assume this posture in these circumstances…”
“Use this tone of voice when engaging in these conversations…”
“Be assertive, but package your assertion in these tips and tricks…”

*As a side note

Did you know that 58% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are over six feet, whereas they are only 14.5% of the general US population?
We certainly wouldn’t write “The Missing Factor in Men’s Leadership: Height” and suggest men try to grow taller. 

All so that women - and others who may not fit the mould - can perform the acrobatics that might, just might, see them find a path to a traditional leadership role.


But, are they contorting themselves to fit into a model of leadership that is working well, or are they perpetuating a broken system?

Let me be clear, for the record, I think it is a good idea for every person to be able to clearly and confidently articulate their skills, accomplishments, their expertise, and their passions. 

But we have data to show that leadership, as it prevails today, is broken. See here and here, for example. 

Many leaders today do not, by and large, have the skills required to become industry leaders in best practice. To earn that honour, companies need to know how to change. 



Innovative leaders - of all genders - who will catapult their organizations into the future, who will disrupt and fend off disruption, need to have the humility to listen to, and learn from, and advocate for their people - all their people - and actively invite their voices to the table, whether those voices are soft, loud, a little shaky, or even over-confident.

We will only see (r)evolution in the world of work, in our communities, in our institutions, when we give ourselves the freedom to imagine new models - new business models, new economic models, new funding models, new leadership models - and stop reinforcing systems, hierarchies, policies, and programs that reinforce the status quo.

Because our status quo is not good enough.

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Co-CEO, Women’s Work Institute

Kristen is a strategist and educator with 15 + years of experience designing transformative curricula, implementing equitable process changes, and capacity-building programs to support the design of more equitable organizations in Canada and New Zealand. Her unique academic background informs her methodology as a strategist and consultant working to advance equity. Combining practices and theories from the social sciences, education, and interdisciplinary humanities, Kristen supports leaders as they work toward cultivating more equitable, effective, and prosperous organizations.

Kristen Liesch