Mind the confidence gap

How female-oriented clubs help women navigate male-dominated fields

There is an observable gap in confidence between men and women.
Photo: 
The confidence gap is 40 per cent—the difference between the 100 per cent qualifications women feel they need for a job and the 60 per cent men do, according to a Harvard Business Review study.
 
Whether it’s finance or physics, women can be reluctant to push for advancement, especially as they enter male-dominated disciplines in university—even when formal barriers have been removed. 
 
At Queen’s, clubs like Women in International Security and Women in Science and Engineering aim to address the confidence gap, fostering professional skills and networks in male-dominated fields.
 
Despite women making up 59 per cent of students arriving at Queen’s in 2017, progress towards parity has been uneven. At 31 per cent, Queen’s Engineering has the country’s highest female enrolment in an engineering program. The Journal reported on lower numbers of women in the electrical and computer engineering disciplines.
 
Meanwhile, women students make up 48 per cent of the commerce program. But life after graduation doesn’t look the same: only 15 per cent of CEO and 25 per cent of vice president positions in Canada are held by women, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation. 
 
The slow progress women face in areas like science are symptoms of a phenomenon called the confidence gap, according to Professor Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant, who researches gendered news coverage.
 
In addition to institutional, political, and structural barriers to women advancing to leadership positions, “There are important psychological factors that are related to the structural factors, whereby women are less confident in their skills and qualifications,” she said. 
 
Looking at young boys and girls, the gap doesn’t seem to exist. According to Goodyear-Grant, “They’re [equally] likely to accurately evaluate their skills.” 
 
The gap widens as women grow older. Possible explanations include increased exposure to media negatively portraying ambitious women, higher female representation in caring professions such as nursing, and younger boys being streamed more frequently than girls into sciences and mathematics.
 
 
Graphic by Hannah Stafl 
 
Women becoming more aware of gender-based discrimination may also “diminish their willingness to put themselves out there,” Goodyear-Grant said. If they expect discrimination, women may simply try to avoid it. 
 
Practically, this lack of confidence means women may not ask for promotions. They may stay quiet in class or working groups, or refrain from negotiating salaries. If they do finally make it up the ladder in their firms or institutions, they may feel unworthy—what’s commonly known as imposter syndrome. 
 
As ways to encourage women against a tendency to downplay their skills, Goodyear-Grant said mentorship and networking with other women are invaluable tools to close the gap.
 
“[Don’t] tell them to be more confident, maybe show them.”
 
***
 
To this end, female-oriented clubs present on campus are attempting to close the gap at Queen’s and beyond. These groups exist for women in science, engineering, technology, politics, and international security, 
among others.
 
Meghann Grenier, Sci ’19, is President of Women In Science and Engineering (WiSE) at Queen’s. She said part of the value of women’s groups is they push members to get outside of their comfort zones, a common issue among women who may have lower confidence than their male peers.
 
In her earlier years at Queen’s, Grenier’s first networking sessions were the most difficult and she often felt listing her accomplishments was a form of bragging. At one networking event, then-WiSE President Julia Vidotto noticed Grenier was apprehensive to participate and pulled her aside.
 
The president introduced herself first, and the pair walked around to different groups until Grenier was left alone to speak with a contact after an introduction had been made.
 
By the end of the day, Grenier discovered a newfound ability to speak about and introduce herself alone.
 
“They’re just human beings, you just talk to them,” Grenier recalled when the session was over.
 
Started in the United Kingdom, WiSE chapters have spread to campuses worldwide, hosting conferences and events showcasing professional women. WiSE also matches members who want to participate with either upper-year or professional mentors in their fields.
 
 
Graphic by Hannah Stafl
 
In international security, confidence is often equally needed.
 
The Queen’s chapter of Women In International Security (WIIS), for instance, aims to promote women in the field by running conferences and speaker series.
 
Zina Ibrahim, ArtSci ’19, is the club’s president. She said the value of mentorship is it allows women to have a concrete example of someone like them prospering in their field.
 
“It’s very difficult to see yourself in a position where you’ve never seen another woman,” Ibrahim said.
 
Established fields like academia or international security were “made by men for men,” according to the club’s Vice President, Bibi Imre-Millei, ArtSci ’19. This can make choosing these career paths mentally daunting for women, even if outside institutional barriers have been removed, such as explicit policies prohibiting women from occupying 
certain roles.
 
During its speaker series, most of WIIS’ speakers shared their own experiences with imposter syndrome. 
 
Assistant Professor Stéphanie Martel teaches in the Department of Political Studies. During her graduate studies and at times during her professional life when starting something new, Martel experienced feelings of being an imposter.
 
She said simply identifying imposter syndrome is important. “This feeling, while prevalent among students, has nothing to do with a person’s intrinsic value or objective performance,” she said. Awareness of the trend may make room for others to share their ideas when doing so may be daunting.
 
As they gain new ground, women can sometimes feel there is more competition among each other rather than the entire pool of job applicants. But Ibrahim  disagrees with this sentiment.
 
“It’s not a female CEO position. It’s a CEO position,” she said. 
 
At Queen’s Women in Financial Markets, Isabelle Callaghan and Sam Roper, both Sci ’20, mentor these future female CEOs. 
 
The club hosts monthly educational modules for women. While the group is Commerce-oriented and covers topics such as investment banking basics, it features the same hallmarks of mentors and networks seen in WiSE and WIIS. 
 
Callaghan said that when women look at a field and don’t see someone who looks like them, “We think, why? Why are there no women there?” She believes some women may conclude there’s a reason for the lack of representation, rather than it being due to a lag in the spread of diversity.
 
Callaghan indicated a trend: There’s an abundance of women at the undergraduate level and the lower ranks of companies, but somewhere along the way, they get caught, with few making it to the top.
 
“Companies will always say, ‘Oh, we have a lot of women in the pipeline,’” Callaghan said. “There have been women in the pipeline for so long now ... where do they go?” 
 
Callaghan said women may stumble because they may fail to develop connections in male-dominated workplaces. When promotions come up—which can be influenced by interpersonal relationships developed outside the office—women may not be the first choice.
 
***                                                        
 
Patti Shugart is one woman who’s made it through the pipeline: she’s Managing Director and Global Head of Corporate Banking and Global Credit at RBC, under Capital Markets.
 
Shugart said self-assurance was key to her rise at RBC. She grew up with four brothers and had supportive parents, with her mother as a strong role model. It’s the confidence she’s nurtured that has kept her moving forward.
If anyone knows about the value that women can bring to the workforce, it’s Shugart. 
 
Shugart wants other women to see capital markets and banking as viable career choices since women are just as capable as men. Additionally, she said women are valuable to client facing teams, as more diverse groups are likely to produce a wider range of solutions. 
 
Shugart described the struggle occuring to acquire the best talent—that is, streaming women into the pipeline. “We are in a talent war, full out,” she said. 
 
All of the best people are wanted by a variety of groups, whether it’s private equity or technology firms, she added.
 
“Over the last 20 years, diversity and inclusion has become a competitive advantage in the capital markets industry,” Shugart said. “The focus now is attracting the women and once they are here, retaining them and promoting them.”
 
Focusing on women is just one shift in a perpetually changing workplace.
 
“Nothing ever stands still in this market,” Shugart said.
Tags: 

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.