By Trish Foster, Senior Director, Gloria Cordes Larson Center for Women and Business at Bentley University
The gender confidence gap between men and women is real: compared to men, women are more deeply impacted by self-doubt. Numerous studies show that women experience unease regarding their career and job performance at a significantly greater rate than men. Women tend to apply for jobs only when they meet 100 percent of the qualifications while men feel confident to apply if they meet about 60 percent. Likewise, women have more trouble visualizing themselves as leaders than do men. And still more research suggests that women’s confidence wanes with experience while men’s grows.
But our confidence deficit is not the real news. The story that should matter for women is what erodes our confidence and, even more importantly, how we can fix it.
While certain biologic and societal factors can play a role in our confidence gap, the workplace takes the biggest toll and often includes factors we can’t control, like micro-inequities—those unintentional slights that include insensitive jokes, being talked over and ignored in meetings, receiving insufficient feedback in interviews or finding ourselves “mommy-tracked” after having children. Micro-inequities and more overt forms of workplace discrimination wear us down and erode our confidence over time.
Why does this matter? Because a lack of confidence can result in decreased workplace engagement and less productivity. And if this doesn’t convince you that you need to take a closer look at your own confidence, consider this: there is ample evidence that success correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. Would any career-focused woman or man want to fall behind someone who is less competent yet winning the race due to greater confidence?
Our workplaces need to address the fundamental inequities that impact women’s confidence, yet we also need to empower ourselves. Here are five empowering, effective approaches that can increase your confidence and enhance your ability to succeed and thrive in your career.
1. Harness the power of mentorship, sponsorship and networks.
An abundance of research demonstrates the significant impact of these powerful relationships on job satisfaction and career success. In fact, about 80 percent of jobs are filled via word of mouth.
2. Advocate for yourself and others by calling out bias when you see it and amplifying for other women.
If you are in a meeting and a woman makes a key point, repeat it and give her recognition. If she is “manterrupted,” speak up for her. And if you are sidelined by “mansplaining,” be ready with a reply like, “George, I appreciate your thoughts, and I’ve got this.”
3. Help dispel outmoded notions that competent women are cold or that they don’t support other women.
When a woman acts or speaks in an assertive manner, check your own thinking on how you would judge her if she were a man. Ask yourself whether a woman who seems unsupportive is any different than some men who aren’t supportive. Are you casting her behavior as a gender issue, and would you do the same with a man?
4. Overcome the “double bind” you find yourself in, on your road to leadership.
When you strongly assert yourself, people don’t like you but think you’re effective, yet when you pull back, coworkers like you but view you as a less effective leader. This dilemma is a direct challenge to women’s leadership. Social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson identifies four personal qualities—fairness, honesty, loyalty, and high principles—that demonstrate good intention and help women conquer unfair leadership stereotypes. If you can embrace and demonstrate these qualities, you will likely sidestep the double bind.
5. Act with confidence.
Courageous action, executive presence and a positive attitude boost self-confidence, so consider reframing moments of nervousness as excitement, looking people in the eye and speaking strongly. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable, ask questions, accept coaching and when you don’t have an answer to a question, fearlessly state, “I don’t know but I can find out.”