An interesting article from the Harvard Business Review came across my Facebook feed last week. The provocative title, “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” worked, and I clicked. The author, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, begins the article with these words:

There are three popular explanations for the clear under-representation of women in management, namely: (1) they are not capable; (2) they are not interested; (3) they are both interested and capable but unable to break the glass-ceiling: an invisible career barrier, based on prejudiced stereotypes, that prevents women from accessing the ranks of power. Conservatives and chauvinists tend to endorse the first; liberals and feminists prefer the third; and those somewhere in the middle are usually drawn to the second. But what if they all missed the big picture?

In my view, the main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence. That is, because we (people in general) commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women. In other words, when it comes to leadership, the only advantage that men have over women (e.g., from Argentina to Norway and the USA to Japan) is the fact that manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.[i]

Wow. While I can’t readily dismiss the reality of the glass ceiling (he doesn’t, either), the author’s theory about perceptions of confidence and competence struck me. These words resonated with the stories I have heard of women involved in ministerial search processes who made it to the final round of interviews, only to come in second place to a male candidate who told the committee that he was God’s choice for the congregation (yes, this happens even in moderate Baptist circles). Or the women who humbly admitted in their cover letters that they weren’t sure God was calling them to the pastorate, but they were continuing to discern God’s call. The article reminded me of all the conversations I’ve had with women who were hesitant to even apply for leadership positions until they felt that they were undisputedly qualified and credentialed. None of these situations demonstrated a lack of competence in the women applicants. They might, however, point to a difference in their show of confidence.

In their book The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know, journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman name this “confidence gap,” one noticed in their decades of interviewing some of the most influential women in the nation. “Woman after woman, from lawmakers to CEOs,” they say, “expressed to us some version of the same inexplicable feeling that they don’t fully own their right to rule the top.”[ii] They remind us that “the qualities that women display when they do rise –wisdom, caution, consensus building, practicality, less partisanship – are more essential than ever.”[iii] They call us to a national dialogue about what female confidence and leadership looks like and how we can encourage it.

Maybe it’s time for us to start this conversation in our own circles, in our churches and classrooms and boardrooms and communities. What would this look like in your setting? What would it mean for you, women, to claim this spirit of confidence in yourself? How could you, men, encourage and make space for women to claim their giftedness and amplify the contributions they bring to the table? What kinds of qualities should we value in our leaders, and how does our model of leadership need to change? I challenge you to do your part to help to crack this code, this glass ceiling – one decision, one conversation, one empowered individual at a time.

Julie Long is associate director of Baptist Women in Ministry.


[ii] Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, The Confidence Code, p. xxiii.

[iii] Ibid., p. xviii.