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Potential vs. credential: How men and women differ in career progress

Recent research suggests that women face yet another career impediment: the confidence gap.

January 05, 2016 |
David Barista

The last half-century has seen a revolution occur in the workplace: the rise of women. Since 1970, the number of women in the workforce has grown by a staggering 140%, from 30.3 million in 1970 to 72.7 million during 2006-2010, according to the Census Bureau. Women now represent 47.2% of the U.S. workforce.

In the AEC industry, women’s presence varies dramatically based on the profession. Architecture fares the best, at around 39% at the intern level and roughly 25% as employed architects, according to AIA data. In construction and engineering, women make up a scant 9-11% of the workforce. And the numbers dwindle drastically at higher-level positions across all AEC professions. For instance, women represent just 17% of principal and partner positions at U.S. architecture firms, says AIA.

The proverbial glass ceiling—and the associated wage gap—for women has remained an enigma since the term was coined in the late 1970s. Experts have pondered many possible reasons: Do women have other priorities (e.g., raising families) that impel them to pause or alter their career trajectory? Are there inherent organizational or attitudinal biases in primarily male-driven professions like AEC that prevent qualified females from advancing to the highest levels? Is there a dearth of female mentors and role models in executive and management positions? Do women have a greater desire for work-life balance?

Recent research suggests that women face yet another career impediment: the confidence gap. The concept was introduced three years ago following an internal study conducted by HP to learn why the tech giant had a shortage of woman in top management positions. Its primary finding: Women applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100% of the qualifications listed for the job. Their male counterparts, on the other hand, applied when they thought they could meet roughly 60% of the job requirements. In short, the women presumed they were being evaluated based on their credentials and experience; the men, based on their potential.

If the confidence gap phenomenon is real, it means countless AEC professional women could unknowingly be holding back their career progress—due to low confidence, misunderstanding the hiring process, or both.

A Harvard Business Review article on the subject ( suggests that the confidence gap is related as much to the corporate hiring process and HR policy as it is to a lack of faith by women. In the article, women’s leadership expert Tara Sophia Mohr suggested that “women don’t need to try and find that elusive quality, ‘confidence,’ they just need better information about how hiring processes really work.”

To address these and other issues women face as AEC professionals, BD+C is launching the Women in Design+Construction Conference. The inaugural event will be held November 9-11, 2016, at the breathtaking Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel in Dana Point, Calif.

To help formulate the conference program and themes, we’re assembling an advisory group of leading women in the AEC industry. If you’re interested in joining our WD+C advisory board, or hearing more about the conference, please contact me at

We look forward to launching this exciting and important event!

David Barista | BD+C Editors
Building Design+Construction
Editorial Director

David Barista is Editorial Director of Building Design+Construction and, properties that combined reach more than 100,000 commercial building professionals, including architects, engineers, contractors, and building owners. David has covered the U.S. construction industry for more than a decade, previously serving as Editor-in-Chief of BD+C, Professional Builder, Custom Builder, and He has won numerous editorial awards, including six Jesse H. Neal Awards and multiple honors from the Construction Writers Association and the American Society of Business Publication Editors.


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