What makes future leaders?

A study which set out to investigate what holds back women’s careers offers some useful insights into how to build confidence in children of both sexes.

With more female graduates entering the workforce than males, the debate continues as to why women earn less and why there are fewer women in senior leadership positions. Reinforcing the gender equality gap based on full-time average weekly earnings, women receive $277.70 less per week and 16 per cent of CEOs are women (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2016).

Could a lack of self-confidence be a factor in the gender equality gap – and if so, could the way we raise and educate our children be to blame?

Dr Terry Fitzsimmons, a senior lecturer at The University of Queensland (UQ) Business School, is renowned for his work investigating the causes of inequality at work and has been researching this question.

Terry says the idea that women lack confidence is controversial even amongst advocates of women’s rights. “Many commentators feel that confidence is holding women back. For example, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg talks about women not ‘leaning in’ – while others argue that the system is to blame and we should stop trying to ‘fix women’.”

To investigate this further, Terry and his team surveyed 10,000 pupils in the top 14 boys’ and girls’ schools in Queensland, the type of schools from which business leaders are often drawn. They also interviewed 500 seven to 11-year-olds and scored them in terms of self-efficacy – their confidence in their own ability to succeed, which is linked with career and personal effectiveness – and asked how long they spent on each of a list of 20 common activities.

The research found no difference at all in overall confidence levels between boys and girls. However regardless of gender, the results clearly showed that certain activities were linked with higher levels of self-efficacy.

Team sports had the strongest link. “Individual sport is also linked to confidence but to a much lesser degree than team sports,” says Terry. “While there could be some underlying factor behind these results confident children may be predisposed to take part in team sport – clearly games such as football or netball do give children an opportunity to work in a team and develop leadership skills.”

In second place came leadership development. Terry says: “While it is seen as a subject for adults, some schools have very good leadership programs and our results show clear links with self-confidence. During our interviews with the children, we were surprised at their sophisticated understanding of leadership – the advice they said they would give to an imaginary friend mirrored models of authentic and transformational leadership. Children implicitly understand leadership from an early age, so maybe we should be refining that during childhood rather than at a later stage.”

Travel was ranked third in terms of links with confidence – including both interstate trips and travel outside the state, although international travel to a lesser extent and only in the older children.

“Travel, or any type of adventure, gives children a broader perspective and allows them to build confidence,” Terry explains. “We were initially surprised by the findings on international travel as other studies have shown that it is strongly linked with confidence in adults. However, it could be that the benefits for younger children are limited as parents are more protective when taking them overseas.”

These three factors together comprised almost 40 per cent of the result. However, one of the most popular childhood activities – computer games – had a clear negative correlation with self-confidence. Terry, a keen gaming fan himself, says: “Computer games can feel like an adventure, but they are a form of escapism. Unlike a real-life adventure, the child can control what’s going on.”

But if overall self-confidence levels were the same, what differences were there between the genders? Terry says boys were more likely to know their parents’ occupation than girls and from an earlier age. In year seven, 96.5 per cent of boys knew what their parents did compared to 85 per cent of girls. “This could suggest that boys are having conversations about career ideas and subject choices at an earlier age than girls, which may suggest that the ‘male breadwinner model’ is still going strong,” he says.

Other gender differences were in terms of chores – surprisingly the boys did far more than girls – and influencers. Parents, followed by friends, were the top influencers for all children though for boys, teachers came a close third, whereas teachers did not figure in the top five for girls.

Terry comments: “We did observe the strong sense of camaraderie between male teachers and boys and how engaged they were in mentoring them. It could be that girls are not having conversations about their long-term future to the same extent. However, this result may only reflect the situation in the top schools, and as with all other findings, we will be discussing the findings with the schools to try to unpick them further and gain deeper insights.”

While the research is still at an early stage, Terry, says it suggests that Catherine Fox’s book, Stop Fixing Women may have been right all along. “If there is no difference in confidence between boys and girls at school, and there is an issue with women’s confidence later in life, then it’s happening in the workplace.

“Or perhaps, as the Catherine suggests, it is not that women are less confident, but that they recognise the barriers and are more pragmatic. Either way, it suggests the way in which the workplace is structured creates persistent discrimination.

Last updated:
27 February 2019