Why incompetent men are more likely to get promoted to management than competent women

There is no direct correlation between confidence and competence. It is possible to be competent and lack confidence just as it is possible to be confident and lack competence. But, in the workplace, confidence is often construed as a measure of competence.

There is plenty of evidence that indicates a lack of confidence holds women back in their careers. Females are much more likely to talk themselves down, apologise for their presence and doubt their abilities than men are. The combined effect of these factors can be perceived as a lack of competence.

EY's managing partner in Melbourne, Annette Kimmitt, fell into the confidence trap when she was offered a promotion to management; she vocalised many doubts about her ability to take on the role in a pivotal phone-call. Fortunately for Kimmitt the senior partner on the other end of the line pulled her up on it and instead of construing those doubts as a measure of her incompetence he accepted it demonstrated a lack of confidence and insisted she start the conversation from scratch.

Kimmitt was fortunate to have the opportunity to start that conversation again and it signalled a seismic shift in the way she approached her career. It is impossible to estimate how many women weren't afforded the same insight from their bosses and it's undoubtedly the reason women who succeed at work are consistent in advising others that self-belief is critical.

While plenty has been written about competent women lacking confidence less has been written on the subject's flipside; confident men lacking in competence. Last week Harvard Business Review writer Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic published a piece called 'Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?' looking at exactly that. His theory about why the uneven gender ratio in management persists is our collective inability to discern between confidence and competence.

"That is, because we (people in general) commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women," he writes. When it comes to leadership the primary advantage men have over women is that their confidence manifests itself in charisma and charm which are commonly mistaken for leadership potential. He says because these occur more frequently in men than in women, men continue to dominate management despite the fact there is convincing data that indicates women are as competent, if not more, at leading. He writes:

Most of the character traits that are truly advantageous for effective leadership are predominantly found in those who fail to impress others about their talent for management. This is especially true for women.

There is now compelling scientific evidence for the notion that women are more likely to adopt more effective leadership strategies than men. Most notably, in a comprehensive review of studies, Alice Eagly and colleagues showed that female managers are more likely to elicit respect and pride from their followers, communicate their vision effectively, empower and mentor subordinates, and approach problem-solving in a more flexible and creative way (all characteristics of "transformational leadership"), as well as fairly reward direct reports.

In contrast, male managers are statistically less likely to bond or connect with their subordinates, and they are relatively more inept at rewarding them for their actual performance. Although these findings may reflect a sampling bias that requires women to be more qualified and competent than men in order to be chosen as leaders, there is no way of really knowing until this bias is eliminated.

In sum, there is no denying that women's path to leadership positions is paved with many barriers including a very thick glass ceiling.

But a much bigger problem is the lack of career obstacles for incompetent men, and the fact that we tend to equate leadership with the very psychological features that make the average man a more inept leader than the average woman. The result is a pathological system that rewards men for their incompetence while punishing women for their competence, to everybody's detriment.

In your career experience do you think that confidence and competence are often confused as the same thing?

Georgina Dent

Georgina Dent is a Contributing Editor at Women's Agenda. She began her working life as a lawyer before building a career in journalism as an editor, reporter and recognised advocate for women. Follow her on Twitter here and Facebook here.    

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