Why Confidence Matters for Women and How to Get More of It

  • Doubted yourself and felt you didn’t deserve a promotion or success?
  • Felt you were a fraud or an imposter?
  • Blamed yourself when a project or exam did not go well?
  • Realized you had asked for less than you could have gotten in a negotiation?
  • Obsessed about being perfect as you researched, prepared, or copyedited your presentation?
  • Hesitated about putting yourself forward for a promotion or other opportunity?
  • If any of these thoughts, feelings, or actions are familiar, you are in good company. Scholars Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, in their Atlantic Monthly article, “The Confidence Gap,” summarize a large collection of research that shows the negative impact of women’s lack of confidence:
    • Men overestimate and women underestimate their readiness for promotions, their abilities, and their actual performance. Women apply for promotions only when they meet 100 percent of the qualifications. Men apply when they meet only 50 percent.
    • Men initiate salary negotiations four times more often than women do, and women ask for 30 percent less money when they do negotiate.
    • Women assume blame when things go wrong, and men blame external circumstances.
    • Women feel the pressure of perfectionism—which actually limits productivity—much more than men.

     What You Can Do to Overcome the Confidence Gap

    Though the confidence gap may seem daunting, you can overcome it. The following actions can help you increase your confidence in the workplace—and beyond:

    Develop a Support System

    Create and nurture a support system of people, women and men, who understand the gender dynamics related to confidence. Your support system should include people from your personal, professional, and organizational contexts who will challenge and encourage you to put yourself forward for opportunities that you may not feel you are qualified for, negotiate for higher salaries and fees, and stretch yourself to do “good enough” work rather than trying to be perfect. As an executive coach, I often push my female clients to ask for double the amount they were going to ask for—or for a significantly higher title than the one offered—and they often get it. And as we know, women have to “smile” while negotiating to avoid being seen as too assertive and, therefore, unlikeable.

    2. Be an Ally to Others and an Effective Boss

    Other women need you to challenge and encourage them to ask for more and to do “good enough” work. Male colleagues can also be important allies, and both male and female bosses need to help their female employees overcome the confidence gap. Many male bosses hesitate to tell female employees that they seem to lack confidence for fear of being seen as sexist. In fact, they may see a female employee as not being ready for a promotion if she doesn’t speak out in meetings when she may feel she is too junior to participate. Understanding gender dynamics can help bosses see that they need to use different approaches to support male and female staff. One of my coaching clients, a male CEO who has an all-female management team, does a great job of seeing the pattern and naming it. He pushes his female managers to apply for promotions they don’t think they are ready for and to face challenges that they hesitate to take on. They have responded to his encouragement and gone on to great success.

    3. Build Skills

    The good news is that showing confidence involves skills that can be learned. Classes in negotiation, presentation, meeting management, and feedback skills can help you feel and be perceived as more confident. A women’s leadership development program can teach you more about how to be successful in the business environment while leveraging your unique strengths as a woman. Scholar Richard Petty says, “Confidence is the stuff that turns thoughts into action.” Don’t hesitate. Even in the face of self-doubt, which will always be lurking just under the surface for many of us, push yourself! Each success will build your confidence.]]>

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