Trend Watch Women Quickly Lose Confidence at Work

Female workers lose their drive early in their careers, but HR can help.

By Jen Schramm Jul 13, 2015
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HR Magazine July/August 2015Women start their careers with more ambition than men do, but they lose confidence within their first years in the workplace. That’s the conclusion of a Bain & Co. study that compared employees with minimal work experience to more-tenured workers. The study posed two simple questions:

  • Do you aspire to top management within a large company?
  • Do you have confidence you can reach top management?

The study found that the percentage of women who aspire to reach top management after being on the job for two or more years plummeted by about 60 percent. At the same time, their confidence dropped by more than 50 percent.

The study points to many factors that might lead to this erosion in ambition and confidence, including a lack of role models and career support from supervisors as well as the perception that senior leaders sacrifice a great deal personally to meet organizational demands.

This is where HR can help. In fact, the HR profession could serve as a model for the successful development of female leaders across business functions. Not only do HR professionals lead their organizations’ diversity efforts—including bringing gender diversity to the senior leadership ranks—but the HR profession itself is dominated by women.

Indeed, the field is well ahead of the curve when it comes to gender parity in senior roles. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that almost 80 percent of HR managers are women, as are 49 percent of HR officers at the top 100 U.S. corporations. By contrast, only 25 percent of executives and senior-level managers in S&P 500 companies are women, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that works to expand opportunities for women and businesses.

However, there’s still ample room for improvement in terms of pay equality, with male HR managers earning 40 percent more than their female counterparts.

There is no single explanation for why women are underrepresented and undercompensated in senior management positions. The issues at play are myriad and complex; moreover, the solution extends beyond merely increasing the percentage of women at the top, since there’s reason to believe that even those who make it there may struggle with confidence, among other things. A University of Texas study, for example, recently showed that by the time women reach the most senior levels, they typically exhibit symptoms of depression and have worse mental health than lower-level female employees.

Such gender disparities have implications for how HR professionals design and implement leadership development programs, compensation systems and strategic workforce plans. In short, they permeate almost every aspect of the profession. As a female-dominated field, HR is in a prime position to drive change and, in creating better opportunities for women, it will also help itself.

Jen Schramm is manager of the Workforce Trends program at SHRM.

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