Women may have broken through the glass ceiling and into the boardroom, but they are still crippled by self-doubt, even when they are as intelligent as men, a new study suggests.
In the first research of its kind, psychologists in the US asked a group of university students to rate their abilities compared to other classmates.
They found that gender plays a large role in perception of personal intelligence with women believing they are far less intelligent than others, even when their grades are equally good.
In contrast, men think themselves more intelligent.
Katelyn Cooper, a doctoral student in the Arizona State University (ASU) School of Life Sciences, and lead author of the study, embarked on the project after talking with hundreds of biology students when working as an academic adviser.
“I would ask students about how their classes were going and I noticed a trend,” said Miss Cooper.
“Over and over again, women would tell me that they were afraid that other students thought that they were stupid. I never heard this from the men in those same biology classes, so I wanted to study it.”
The ASU research team asked 250 students to estimate their own intelligence compared to everyone in the class, and also to the student they worked most closely with in class.
They found that women were far more likely to underestimate their own intelligence than men.
When comparing female and a male students, both with a GPA of 3.3 – the equivalent of a B+ or the top 20 per cent – male students thought they were cleverer that around 66 per cent of the class, while female students thought they was smarter only than 54 per cent of the class.
And when asked whether they are smarter than the person they worked most with in class, male students were 3.2 times more likely than females to say they are smarter than the person they were working with, regardless of whether their class partners were men or women.
Miss Cooper added: “This is not an easy problem to fix. It’s a mindset that has likely been ingrained in female students since they began their academic journeys.”
A recent study found that 40 per cent of working millennial women experience self-doubt at work compared to just 22 per cent of men.
And the Institute of Leadership and Management, based in Staffordshire, found that half of female leaders regularly experienced self doubt in contrast to fewer than a third of male managers.
Previously experts have claimed women are more likely to blame themselves for setbacks or failures, while believing their successes are down to luck.
Studies have also consistently shown that women are far less likely to apply for jobs than men if they do not meet all the criteria listed.
Sara Brownell, senior author of the study and assistant professor in the school, said the lack of confidence meant women may choose not to take, or stay in, traditionally male subjects such as science, maths or engineering because they believed they were not intelligent enough.
“This study shows that women are disproportionately thinking that they are not as good as other students,” she said.
“These false perceptions of self-intelligence could be a negative factor in the retention of women in science.”
The research was published in the journal Advances in Physiology Education.