HomeLearning CenterBreaking Through the Self-Doubt That Keeps Talented Women from Leading

Breaking Through the Self-Doubt That Keeps Talented Women from Leading

Originally published by Kara Baskin for Working Knowledge

There it is, gleaming at the top of your LinkedIn feed: your dream job, a high-level, well-paying position in your field. Are you qualified enough? Should you apply? New research shows that women might be less likely to take that chance than men.

Talented women are more likely to shy away from applying for job opportunities, particularly more advanced, higher-paying positions, because they’re concerned they aren’t qualified enough, whereas men don’t seem to worry about their skills matching the specific job requirements as much, according to research by Harvard Business School Associate Professor Katherine B. Coffman that was recently published in Management Science.

Women tend to avoid applying for advanced positions where men are stereotypically believed to have an advantage, such as more analytical or management-oriented roles, according to the research, coauthored with Manuela R. Collis and Leena Kulkarni, former research associates at HBS.

“We found that candidates were talented, and yet they self-selected out,” Coffman says.

Ultimately, that means many businesses advertising for executive positions may wind up with applicant pools that are dominated by men, simply because women are more hesitant to dive in, a scenario that likely contributes to a gender gap in wages and positions that has persisted for decades. In 2023, the World Economic Forum declared that despite slow and steady gains in the proportion of women hired to leadership positions in the past eight years, at the current rate of change, the global gender gap is still 130 years away from closing.

Coffman’s research study was inspired by a commonly quoted statistic: Men apply for a job when they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100 percent of them.

“You hear this so much because it resonates with people, so we set out to do empirical work around that: Is this indeed the pattern we see in an experimental context? If it is, what might we be able to do about it?” she says.

As it turns out, Coffman’s research reveals that businesses can take a simple step to draw more women to apply: Make it easier for candidates to know whether they are qualified. Instead of using vague language about the experience or skills candidates need in job postings, be more precise about expected qualifications. When businesses ask for specific levels of experience and skills, more women that meet those requirements are likely to apply.

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