The Confidence Gap: What It Means for Equal Pay

05/11/2015 02:15 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016

When I was in business school, our professors taught us to speak authoritatively to ensure that we sounded like we knew what we were talking about. The longer I continue to work with organizations, the more I see what excellent advice that was, especially for women.

Today, women earn more college degrees than men, make up half the workforce, and -- though progress is slow -- are rising to fill top leadership positions in companies. Women have a lot to be proud of, and yet there is a confidence gap that exists. Compared with men, women often underestimate their abilities and consider themselves less qualified than their male counterparts. This confidence gap can translate into palpable discrepancies between the sexes, especially when it comes to your bank account. Women are much less likely to negotiate for their salaries than men. When they do negotiate, it's often for less than a man would ask for -- up to 30 percent less. And women are also less likely to think they deserve a promotion or raise.

A number of studies have found that men overestimate their abilities and performance, while women underestimate both despite the fact that neither differ in quality. Even when they do the same or better work, women will still think they deserve less than a man.

And when it comes to success, women are more likely than men to attribute their achievements to luck or favorable circumstances than to their own abilities, yet assume blame personally when things go wrong. Men, however, do the opposite, and that leads to a lot of differences in the types of challenges men and women pursue, including applying for promotions or more prestigious positions.

Another damaging factor that contributes to a lack of confidence is a psychological term called stereotype threat. It is a situational predicament in which people are, or believe themselves to be, at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their social group. Studies have found that these stereotypes can threaten how students or others evaluate themselves, which can affect performance.

A study conducted by the American Psychological Association examined differences between and men and women's scores on a math test. One group was told that the test showed gender differences; the other group was not. Women in the group that were informed about the gender differences scored significantly worse, while women who were told nothing scored just as well as men. These experiments have been repeated and similar results have been found for other minority groups, including African American students.

We know we are capable of great things, yet it seems that the biggest threat to achievement is inside ourselves. We have to remember that confidence matters just as much, if not more, than competence. We need to take more risks, including applying for jobs we don't think we are qualified for just yet. When the risk of trying is only failure, we need to build the confidence to take the chance. You never know what you are able to accomplish until you take that leap of faith.