Self-belief is the fuel that keeps us trying in the face of obstacles or discouragement. When self-belief and confidence are lacking, sparks of genius tend to dull, shoulders hunch, and we back up. In the context of business and negotiation, retreating, or not putting ideas forward, typically works to the detriment of success.
Research shows that the disparity in self-confidence between men and women, where women report being less self-assured, is a universal phenomenon. Interestingly, it seems to impact Western countries such as the UK, Australia and the US more than emerging nations. "I can speculate that in Western societies, women are more likely to compare themselves to men. Men tend to have higher-status positions and higher salaries, for example, so the comparison is less favorable for women," says Wiebke Bleidorn, associate professor of psychology at UC Davis and author of the aforementioned research.
A 2016 McKinsey study of 132 companies across the US found that only 67% of women surveyed felt that they were able to participate meaningfully in meetings, as compared to 74% of men. Women were also less likely to report receiving challenging assignments, less likely to feel that they were being turned to for input, and less likely to believe that their contributions were valued. Gender bias is still, it seems, a factor slowing women's career progress, but the gender confidence gap may also have a role to play.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's COO and a Harvard MBA, asks that more women 'lean in' to seize on opportunity. Yet, 'leaning in' in business, especially when the numbers of female leaders deplete the higher up the corporate ladder you get, is arguably pretty daunting.
Here are five ways in which an executive MBA (EMBA) from one of the world's top business schools can help female professionals, not only to build on their repertoire of business skills, but also to find the confidence to aim for, and reach, the c-suite. EMBA classmates - riding the same waves
While conversations about gender, and in this instance, the gender confidence gap make it seem all doom and gloom, the good news is that the number of women entering top business schools is steadily rising. Currently, class proportions for the full-time MBA hover at around 40%. This means that there may be as many as four out of 10 people in an EMBA class who are in a similar boat to you; female leaders who are intent on progressing their business careers, open to sharing ideas, and juggling the same busy study schedule and deadlines.
Deborah Peracchi, an executive MBA graduate from MIP Politecnico di Milano, says that the tight-knit nature of her cohort, and the positive support they gave each other throughout the program was one of the most important highlights of her EMBA experience. "We felt powerful, capable of reaching any goal, and in the end, this is what happened; we all got there." Top business schools, real-life simulation and application to the workplace
Discussing strategy in the boardroom and discussing strategy in the classroom are two very distinct scenarios. Many top business schools compensate by using real-life business simulations, role-play and will, for example, set complex problems to be resolved under time pressure. This is an excellent confidence-building measure as, in essence, executive MBA candidates are thrown into the deep of it, but without there being real and impactful consequences. Skilled professors guide, ideas are thrashed out, team skills are honed and spirits are built.
The executive MBA has a flexible format, with classes usually held on weekends or on a set number of weeks throughout the year. The program's flexibility is designed to accommodate the needs of senior professionals already balancing home and career. What's learned during seminars, in classes and during those idea-thrashing sessions on the weekend can therefore be applied with almost immediate effect the following Monday, should you so wish.
What's more, challenges you might face at work can be brought back to your peers, and back into the classroom. Expertise is at arm's reach and for the (usually) two years in which you complete the program, you'll have constant, measured feedback; advice that should steer you towards being the kind of leader you aspire to.
If confidence is tripping you up, bring it back to your executive MBA peers, if you think gender bias is an issue in the workplace, you'll have likeminded sympathizers who, with any luck, can share practical insights based on their own experiences and knowledge. Alumni networks and the need for female leaders as role models
While you climb your company's hierarchy and watch the number of female leaders thin as you reach senior management and beyond, it's comforting to know that you have a group of EMBA peers on standby. This includes those met through the business school's alumni network, as well as those in your cohort.
The top business schools will have some of the largest and most prestigious alumni networks around. Having such an accessible and supportive entourage of people who have shared much of your study experience, not only creates a sense of belonging, but of confidence as well.
In time, there will hopefully be more female leaders at the top, creating more role models for younger women to aspire to, and more support in helping them to get there. The gender confidence gap will close as support grows - and we should all eventually be, women and men, leaning in together.