Men’s overconfidence helps them reach top jobs

24 April 2023

Men are 34% more likely than women to be employed in top jobs at age 42 with overconfidence explaining up to 11% of the gender gap, on average, for full-time workers.

However, the new UCL study found that systemic barriers faced by working mothers remained the biggest contributor to the gender gap in top jobs. Working mothers are 27% less likely than working fathers to be in a senior role mid-career, with overconfidence explaining none of this difference.

Co-author, Dr Anna Adamecz-Volgyi (UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies and KRTK KTI) said: “Our results show that overconfidence matters, on average, for gender inequality in the labour market. But it is not the case that women are holding themselves back because they are underconfident. Instead, other factors related to the family, employment conditions and societal norms play a larger role in preventing women from entering top jobs. Improving gender equality in access to senior roles will require more than confidence building interventions.”

The researchers analysed data on more than 3,600 people born in England, Scotland and Wales during one week in 1970 who are being followed by the 1970 British Cohort Study. To estimate overconfidence levels the research team compared results from cognitive tests taken by study members at ages 5, 10 and 16 to their own subjective impressions of their abilities, collected at ages 10 and 16.

Men tended to overestimate their abilities more than women during childhood and adolescence. By age 42, overconfident individuals were more likely to be employed full time in top jobs – such as a chief executive, doctor or lawyer – than similar adults who hadn’t overrated their talents.

Just under a quarter of men (24%) worked in a full-time top job in mid-career compared to a sixth of women (16%). The researchers found that men’s overconfidence explained up to 11% of this gender gap, on average, for full-time workers at age 42.

The study’s findings revealed that there was only a small difference in the proportion of men and women in top jobs during their mid-20s. Unsurprisingly, with many people choosing to start a family in their early 30s, the gender gap widened from this age and persisted to their early 40s.

More than a quarter of working fathers (26%) were in top jobs in mid-career compared to one in seven working mothers (15%). However, the researchers found overconfidence did not explain any of this difference. The authors said that the gender gap in top jobs among working parents was most probably due to women being more likely than men to change their working patterns once they had children.

The research team found that men’s overconfidence explained only 6% of the gender gap in top jobs once they accounted for pre-university educational results and university degree. They noted that success at school and choice of university subject and institution were likely to be important channels between overconfidence and employment in top jobs by mid-career.

The gender gap in top jobs was considerably larger among graduates compared to non-graduates. At age 42, 46.5% of male graduates were in top jobs compared to 30% of female graduates. Among those who did not attend university, men made up around one in seven of those in top jobs (15%). Women comprised one in 11 of those in senior roles (9%).  Interestingly, the role of overconfidence in top job employment mattered more for graduates.

Overall, men were more likely than women to be in a top job in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) and in Law, Economics and Management (LEM). While men’s overconfidence contributed to the gender gap in top LEM roles, it did not matter for top jobs in STEM.

Co-author, Dr Nikki Shure (UCL Social Research Institute) added: “Our findings have important policy implications. We found that overconfidence contributes to the gender gap in who ends up in a top job. This may be because men are more likely to assess themselves favourably at work and therefore apply for promotion at an earlier stage. Gender differences in self-assessment and promotion may be an important channel through which overconfidence manifests. Employers could improve gender equity in the workplace by examining who is putting themselves forward for promotions.”

Media coverage of this research

Mail – Men in the workplace get to the top thanks to greater self-esteem, landmark study finds

The Conversation – Overconfidence dictates who gets ‘top jobs’ and research shows men benefit more than women

Further information

Adamecz-Volgyi, A and Shure, N, ‘The gender gap in top jobs – The role of overconfidence,’ is available open-access on the Labour Economics website.

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