When women are pessimistic about their own potential, it's little wonder they get walked all over in the workplace

Many of the skills that spur academic performance in girls – worrying too much and overpreparing – have little effect in the workplace where confidence is the main currency

Research has shown that women are less likely to ask for a pay rise compared to their male counterparts
Research has shown that women are less likely to ask for a pay rise compared to their male counterparts

New research has been unveiled, which will do little to please the Women and Equalities Committee – or any woman anywhere. A team of experts at the University of Bath has found that female pessimism is an underlying factor in pay inequality. Researchers studied individual expectations of salaries and discovered that women were far more likely to underestimate their abilities – and what they should be paid – compared to their male equivalents.

I can’t say this surprises me. I first noticed differences between the way men and women thought about their potential at school, doing my GCSES. While preparing for my exams, I had sleepless nights, convinced that I would fail each one. I noticed that my male schoolmates had a completely different attitude. They would say things like “yeah, I aced it”, when they came out of tests. Even though the girls always did better.

That’s what women do all the time, particularly in the academic stakes – we underestimate, but outperform. Last year girls dominated GCSEs, with 71 percent awarded at least a C grade, compared to 62 percent of their male contemporaries. This trend can be noticed when it comes to A Levels and university degrees too, but what never fails to surprise me is the lack of fanfare over the academic brilliance of girls. Perhaps because people now realise that educational performance doesn’t predict whether you’ll be a CEO. In fact, often it has nothing to do with it.

Ultimately, many of the skills that spur academic performance – worrying too much and overpreparing – have little effect in the workplace where confidence is the main currency. As this study shows, men display much more of that, by way of optimism about their prospects and an inflated sense of what they should earn. This sort of self-regard doesn’t help at an academic level, as it means boys overestimate how clever they are, but in the workplace it’s a real asset. All bravado is.

Clearly women do need to enhance this area, which is not what anyone wants to hear. Indeed, I’m sure the University of Bath will get hounded over the research, as it does not fit the fashionable narrative that external factors solely are holding women back. As I said in a recent talk, the truth is that gender pay gap is an enormously multifaceted phenomenon, with internal and external causes. One big reason for the gap is childcare, which women still take the brunt of and desperately need assistance with.

But that aside, it’s important to understand what personal variables can prove detrimental, as these are things that we have control over ourselves. It suggests to schools, for instance, that far from preparing young girls to be academic stars, confidence, esteem and expectation for high remuneration are just as – if not more so – important in setting them up for life. (And that boys need to be knocked down a peg or two...)

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Women must also have their expectations changed and raised – regarding what they can earn in the workplace. Frequently girls around the country are told that they will be paid less than men, but what does this actually achieve? It’s a shackle ultimately, that makes them pessimistic about their future.

Ultimately they have every reason to be optimistic, but we must do much more to close what is clearly a “confidence” gap between the two sexes. What people may forget about this study is that it has negative implications for both parties. It’s not good that women regularly underestimate their potential, nor is it healthy for men to overestimate theirs. The sooner we can make men and women realistic about their worth, the sooner we will have real income and education equality – and all the benefits that follow.

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