Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to ‘lean in’ isn’t helping Australian women

  • “Leaning in,” the message popularized by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg meaning to show confidence at work, doesn’t guarantee a payoff for Australian women, according to labor economist Leonora Risse.
  • Risse used “achievement motivation” — a test that measures hope for success and fear of failure — to examine the relationship between confidence and job promotion.
  • She found that bold, charismatic, and confident men are more likely to be promoted than women who share the same qualities and characteristics.
  • Risse says the “fixation on fixing women” over company culture can be detrimental for effective, anti-discrimination initiatives. 
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“Just be more confident, be more ambitious, be more like a man.”

These are the words of advice given over and over to women in a bid to close the career and earnings gaps between women and men.

From self-help books to confidence coaching, the message to “lean in” and show confidence in the workplace is pervasive, propelled by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg through her worldwide Lean In movement:

Women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves. We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.

The efforts are well intended, because women are persistently underrepresented in senior and leadership positions.

But where is the proof they work?

Repeated advice needn’t be right

As a labour economist, and a recipient of such advice throughout my own career, I wanted to find out.

So I used Australian survey data to investigate the link between confidence and job promotion for both men and women. The results have just been published in the Australian Journal of Labour Economics.

The nationally-representative Household, Income, and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey includes a measure of a person’s confidence to take on a challenge.

The measure is called achievement motivation.

It is made up of hope for success which we measure by asking people how much they agree with statements such as

  • When confronted by a difficult problem, I prefer to start on it straight away
  • I like situations where I can find out how capable I am
  • I am attracted to tasks that allow me to test my abilities

And it is made up of fear of failure which is measured by a person’s agreement with statements such as

  • I start feeling anxious if I do not understand a problem immediately
  • In difficult situations where a lot depends on me, I am afraid of failing
  • I feel uneasy about undertaking a task if I am unsure of succeeding

More than 7,500 workers provided answers to these questions in the 2013 HILDA survey.

Confidence matters, with a catch

Using a statistical technique called Oaxaca-Blinder decomposition I investigated the link between their answers and whether or not they experienced a promotion in the following year.

After controlling for a range of factors, including the job opportunities on offer, I discovered higher hope for success was