After Two Years On the Job, Women’s Confidence Plummets

New research shows dropping levels of ambition and confidence for mid-career women

Working Woman
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Over the last several decades, women have joined the labor force in increasing numbers — the most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 57 percent of American women work. But there are still big gaps between how men and women feel in the workplace. And one of them seems to be a mid-career drop in confidence for women, that doesn't impact men the same way. Harvard Business Review’s Orit Gadiesh and Julie Coffman report on a study that shows that “companies drain women’s ambition after only two years.”

The study, which was conducted by management consulting firm Bain & Company, asked more than 1,000 men and women about their job aspirations and confidence. Researchers found that women who had participated in the workforce for two years or less were more ambitious than their male counterparts. But when women had worked for two years or more, both ambition and confidence plummeted — dramatically.

“For women who had more than two years on the job, aspiration and confidence plummeted 60% and nearly 50%, respectively,” write Gadiesh and Coffman, who note that the drop was seen regardless of a woman’s marital status or whether she was a mother. Men, on the other hand, only dropped down 10 percent. Though women in senior management were more confident, they were still less confident than males — in fact, nearly twice as many male managers (55 percent of men surveyed, compared with 29 percent of women) were confident they’d achieve top management.

When the study’s authors followed up with questions about how well participants felt they fit into the typical stereotype of success within their companies, they found that though women and men matched early in their careers, women dropped 15 percentage points as their careers progressed. Men, on the other hand, only lost nine points.

“The result of this trajectory is a well-documented dearth of women in top management roles in America,” write the study’s authors. They suggest that while all employees’ career aspirations are shaped by their first few years in the workforce, women are affected by a perceived clash with “ideal worker” stereotypes, lack of supervisory support, and too few role models.

Other research shows that women are judged more harshly than their male counterparts at work. For example, a 2014 study showed that 75.5 percent of women receive critical feedback about their personalities in performance reviews (using words like "abrasive" and “strident” to describe behavior), compared to just two percent of men.

So how can companies bridge the confidence gap? Basic encouragement would be a start, write Gadiesh and Coffman. Positive affirmation “has huge benefits,” they write — but it can’t work if it’s not given to women at all points of their careers.

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