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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Fix the system, not the women 

Published 27 October 2023 in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion • 7 min read • Audio availableAudio available

It’s time to debunk outdated myths around women lacking confidence and not asking for pay rises and focus on the real problem: societal misperceptions. 

Women lack confidence, they don’t – or won’t – ask for pay raises, and they are more likely to feel like a fraud in the workplace. These are just some of the stereotypes that pervade conversations around women in leadership – and it’s time to send them to the scrap heap. 

In the early-to-mid 2000s, books such as Women Don’t Ask (2007) by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever and Lean In (2013) by Sheryl Sandberg, then Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, perpetuated the myth that if women only overcame their fear of negotiations and learned to assert themselves more at work, they could close the gender pay gap and smash the glass ceiling. 

The problem with these proposals is that they put the onus entirely on women to fix themselves without considering whether systemic bias in the workplace and societal misperceptions might be holding them back. 

New research published in the Academy of Management found that, despite these stereotypes, women are actually more likely to negotiate their salaries than men. While it may once have been true that women were less likely to ask, the study suggests, that trend has now reversed. The problem? They are less likely to be successful.  

As I have written in a previous article, I don’t believe that women lack the confidence to succeed in business. Instead, women seem to be more likely than men to think that others have lower confidence in their abilities. I also feel uneasy with the frequent assertions you see in the media that women are more likely than men to suffer from “imposter syndrome” – that is doubting their abilities and feeling like a fraud at work.  

Research shows that men are promoted for leadership potential while women are promoted for performance. This is because managers tend to consistently underestimate women’s leadership potential.

It’s perfectly normal, and in fact quite healthy, to have some doubts or mild anxiety before starting a new role. After all, this is what makes us human. By pathologizing it as a “syndrome” that is more likely to affect women, we are once again suggesting that women need to be fixed. And by continuing to perpetuate these myths, the danger is that they become self-fulfilling. 

So how can we reframe the problem away from the perceived faults of women to examining instead what organizations can do to foster an environment that allows leaders of all genders to thrive? 

  • 1. Increase awareness of the problem 

The first step is to raise awareness that we may be inadvertently spreading the misconception that women lack confidence. Even the most well-intentioned individuals may sometimes fall prone to “benevolent sexism”. Simply put, this refers to attitudes or behaviors that seem positive but merely serve to reinforce established gender norms. Here it’s important to pay attention to language. For example, telling a woman to “ask so-and-so to help you” may send the message that the woman lacks the capabilities or competencies to complete a certain task by herself. Organizations can introduce bias training to help individuals reflect on whether there is a difference in the way they treat male and female employees. 

  • 2. Conduct internal audits on pay 

Second, to overcome the myth that women’s failure to negotiate is responsible for the pay gap, companies should conduct an internal audit on salaries. A few years ago, IMD compared the base salaries of its faculty members and concluded that women were paid less. This wasn’t down to a difference in working hours (part-time work is often cited as one reason for pay discrepancy) since all IMD faculty members work full-time. As a result, IMD adjusted the base salaries of its female professors. With pressure for equal pay continuing to grow, there are now a number of non-profit organizations, such as the Equal Salary Foundation, that provide a certification process enabling companies to verify and communicate that they pay their male and female employees equally for the same job or for the same value. 

  • 3. Evaluate candidates in groups rather than one by one

Research shows that men are promoted for leadership potential while women are promoted for performance. This is because managers tend to consistently underestimate women’s leadership potential. To reduce implicit or unconscious gender bias in hiring and promotion decisions, it is better to evaluate the merits of the two applicants at the same time, rather than assessing them one by one. When a recruiter carries out a joint evaluation, they are more likely to compare the two candidates based on performance rather than an implicit gender basis. And when performance is used as the basis for a promotion decision, women are more likely to come out on top. 

New research published in the Academy of Management found that, despite these stereotypes, women are actually more likely to negotiate their salaries than men.
New research published in the Academy of Management found that, despite these stereotypes, women are actually more likely to negotiate their salaries than men


  • 4. Introduce mentoring programs for women 

As one senior executive once commented, “I have been coached to death, but I have never been mentored.” This is backed up by research which found that 62% of men had a mentor at the CEO or senior executive level compared to 52% of women.  

A good mentor will ideally be a senior executive within the organization who will share their knowledge, experience, and network to help the mentee to navigate their career and clarify their goals. They will also provide sponsorship by opening doors and recommending their mentee for certain assignments that will increase their visibility within the organization. A coach, on the other hand, will focus on the individual’s skills and competencies. By giving women more access to coaching instead of mentoring, an organization may be inadvertently harming their chances of success: having a mentor who is a senior executive increases a person’s chance of promotion and securing a bigger pay bump. 

One challenge is that men sometimes feel uncomfortable mentoring women. I once held a workshop on mentoring with a company based here in Switzerland and noticed there was some unease around the topic. The participants told me they worried about office gossip and even what their wives would say if they actively worked to advance the careers of younger, attractive women. To overcome this, and avoid any misunderstanding, organizations need to raise awareness of their mentoring programs and what these involve. This includes making clear that it is perfectly normal for senior executives to meet with younger people as part of mentoring, regardless of their gender.  

  • 5. Work to correct meta-perceptions 

There are some remedies women can adopt to try to balance out the misconceptions resulting from pervasive stereotypes. One approach to get around the perceived lack of confidence is to use techniques to signal attention and interest. For example, when people come to work together on a project for the first time, status is ascribed to the various team members. By failing to speak up early on, women are more likely to be ascribed zero status. One way to signal interest and thus rack up some status points can be by asking a good question. Another way is daring to disagree with someone, because by doing so, others in the group will ascribe you confidence. This can sometimes be challenging for women who are often conditioned from an early age to crave the approval of parents and educators.

American psychologist Carol Dweck has suggested this is because girls tend to have longer attention spans and more advanced verbal and social skills than boys in the early school years making them more likely to receive praise. Boys, on the other hand, often get more mixed feedback. Since failing and trying harder next time are essential to confidence building, Dweck suggests this makes boys more immune towards negative feedback by the time they reach adulthood and less worried about the consequences of getting things wrong. To counter this, society needs to make sure that we praise girls for the energy they invest in certain activities, rather than rewarding them for perfect scores on their homework, so that they lessen the fear of making mistakes. 

In summary, it’s time to debunk some of the myths that blame women for hindering their own progress and take a closer look at how we can overhaul workplace practices to correct the misconceptions that are blocking their success. 


Ginka Toegel - IMD Professor

Ginka Toegel

Professor of Organizational Behavior and Leadership at IMD

Ginka Toegel is a teacher, facilitator, and researcher in the areas of leadership and human behavior. Specialized in providing one-to-one leadership coaching and team-building workshops to top management teams in both the public and private sector, her major research focuses on leadership development, team dynamics, and coaching. She is also Director of the Strategies for Leadership program and the Mobilizing People program.


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