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Closing the Confidence Gap


Women in convenience need two things to achieve a leadership position: confidence in themselves and, more important, confidence they have a path to leadership in their organization.

While women graduate from college feeling as qualified for success as their male peers, their aspiration level drops more than 60 percent over time, according to the Bain & Co. report “Everyday Moments of Truth.”

While women lose confidence in their careers soon after entering the workforce, the confidence level of men remains constant. After two or more years of experience, 34 percent of men are still aiming for the top, while only 16 percent of women are.

Why do female college graduates quickly lose confidence in their career potential? Bain attributed the confidence gap to three main factors: little supervisory support, too few role models in senior-level positons and the widespread perception among men and women that “ideal workers” put in long hours and are adept at self-promotion, networking and maintaining a high profile.

Organizations that address these workplace challenges are able to leverage the power of women’s leadership and the talents, skills and leadership potential of every employee. That’s a huge competitive advantage.


Transforming our workplace culture is essential to having more inclusive leadership, but change won’t come fast and it won’t come easy. To succeed in today’s environment, women need to believe in themselves, find their own role models and create their own paths to success.

A KPMG survey of more than 3,000 women found their perception of their own leadership skills — and the seeds of self-doubt — are planted in childhood. While nearly nine in 10 survey respondents said they were taught to be nice to others, only one-third were encouraged to share their point-of-view.

At the Network of Executive Women (NEW) Leadership Summit last fall, more than 1,200 Network members were inspired by women executives who overcame such doubts to become powerful and effective leaders. These high-powered women worked through their fears, sought the help of mentors and sponsors, and took on stretch assignments that broadened their skills and built their profile.

During a Summit panel discussion, Kathy Russello, executive vice president, human resources for Ahold USA, shared how early in her career she was hesitant to take on a new role outside her area of expertise. She was given responsibility for labor relations strategy, which included negotiating with mostly male union officials. “I went into that role with a great deal of concern. I wasn’t sure I could do it,” she said. “But it’s the role I learned the most from.”


For Ellen Junger, Hallmark Cards Inc.’s senior vice president for corporate brand development, “stretch” has meant “jumping in without fully knowing what you’re doing.” But, like Kathy, she learned the most and gained the most confidence when she accepted a role thinking, “I really don’t know if I can do this.”

“Many women think, ‘I need to know what I’m doing before I step out,’” Junger said. “But if you say, ‘I’m 50-percent confident and I’m going to conquer it anyway,’ that is when you grow.”

With stretching comes risk-taking. And some risks fail. Successful women and men don’t let a failure — or two — permanently change their career trajectories.

Summit keynoter Denice Torres, co-chair of Johnson & Johnson Consumer Cos., has faced multiple challenges as a gay, multicultural woman and the mother of a special needs child. During the low times, she said it’s important to remember the situation won’t last forever.

“It’s just for today. Tomorrow can be different. Every career has highs and lows — and the more highs and lows you go through, the stronger you become,” Torres said.

Industry leaders — men and women — should encourage women to step up with confidence and take risks. Women who feel stuck in the middle must do their part and reach for the brass ring.

The NEW Summit’s closing speaker — Carla Moore, vice president of talent acquisition at HBO — explained why closing the confidence gap that women face is so important. “I believe that when leaders change, businesses change,” she said. “And sometimes it takes a personal transformation to lead a business transformation.”

I’ll quote Junger and offer this advice to women who want to move into leadership roles: “Don’t let the butterflies in your stomach hold you back.”

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