The disproportionate number of men versus women in top jobs at American companies may not be entirely the result of discrimination. Instead, it may be that men are just more confident than women. That's the conclusion of new research from Columbia Business School, which posits the theory that men's honest overconfidence — not overt discrimination — may play an important role in male domination of the executive level jobs.
While part of the persistent gender gap in leadership at firms can be attributed to discrimination, the researchers sought to determine if the underlying causes of such selection issues may go beyond simple conscious discrimination. The researchers examined how the differences in the way men and women think of themselves and react to incentives may be creating gender differences that lead to leadership gaps, rather than the gap being caused solely by discrimination in the selection process.
Specifically, men's tendency to exhibit natural overconfidence in their past performances may attribute to the lack of greater female representation in upper management and executive positions, the researchers suggested.
The researchers conducted two studies in which they discovered that men were more likely to overestimate their performance and to a higher degree than women.
While there was no gender differential when it comes to lying, there is a significant gender differential when it comes to "honest" overconfidence, the study found.
The study suggests an important takeaway for firms: recruiters should consider overconfidence when considering male candidates' claims about past performance. Employers who are not aware of the tendency for men to unconsciously inflate their performance could mistake that overconfidence for true performance, and overlook better female job candidates , according to the researchers.
Furthermore, the researchers find this aspect of gender difference is hard to correct.
Columbia Business School Professor Ernesto Reuben, who lead the study, said, "It's not just a matter of telling men not to lie — because they honestly believe their performance is 30 percent better than it really is. Similarly, it's not as if you can simply tell women they should inflate their own sense of overconfidence to be on par with that of men."
In addition to Reuben, other study participants included Pedro Rey-Biel, associate professor at Autonomous University of Barcelona, Paola Sapienza, professor of finance at
Northwestern University, and Luigi Zingales, professor of entrepreneurship and finance, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. The research was recently featured in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization and Columbia Business School's Ideas at Work.