Photo credit: David Marcu
One day I got an emergency call from a woman, let's call her Julia, who is a director in a pharmaceutical company. She's one of the more impressive leaders I know, a medical doctor by training, who transitioned to hospital administration, then to public health policy and later to corporate healthcare. She has worked across different continents and both developed and developing countries, in some very difficult field conditions. She is charming and well-articulated and highly respected by colleagues and supervisors. With all that, do you know what was her major challenge? She was freaking out because she had to appear in a corporate video and was worried about her looks and speech on camera! We talked through her concerns and I helped her calm down and sent her some inspirational videos of great female leaders, which got her pumped up for the next day. Julia's story is not uncommon. I hear similar stories from women across all age groups, seniority levels and nationalities. Women who are smart and accomplished but handicapped by self-doubt. I'm not alone in this observation, actually. Journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman wrote a whole book about it - The Confidence Code (read a fantastic article in The Atlantic about it). The book talks about how socialization and some (but few) biological differences have caused women to be less self-assured on average and this is a big problem because confidence, much more than competence, predicts success in the real world. Confidence can lead to more promotions and higher pay, something that men benefit from more than women. Kay and Shipman highlight the confidence breaking behaviors women tend to engage in:
Focusing on being liked at the expense of taking action, negotiating and expressing opinions.
Overthinking: this one is partially biological as women have 30% more neuron activity than men (did you know that?!). Our active and multitasking brain can be a great thing that helps us consider all variables, be creative and connect deeper with people but can lead to negative thinking, stress and even depression.
Taking the blame for things going wrong but crediting success to others (i.e. "the team did a good job!")
Taking failure personally, while men often attribute failure to external factors that are not reflection of their abilities.
Pursuing perfection: setting the bar too high and thereby always feeling inadequate and avoiding taking action at risk of failing.
Are managers aware of this issue? Of course they are. "When we raised the notion with a number of male executives who supervised women, they expressed enormous frustration. They said they believed that a lack of confidence was fundamentally holding back women at their companies, but they had shied away from saying anything, because they were terrified of sounding sexist." Action, Not Praise, is What Builds Confidence Confidence is not about feeling good about yourself and being reassured. In fact, reassurance can be dangerous because lack of it can lead to immediate confidence drop. Instead, confidence is interrelated to action in a virtuous circle. "Confidence is a belief in one’s ability to succeed, a belief that stimulates action. In turn, taking action bolsters one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed. So confidence accumulates—through hard work, through success, and even through failure." explain Kay and Shipman. It's therefore important to help women build the habits of failing often and failing quickly thereby learning from their successes and mistakes. Here are some things you can do to support female colleagues:
Help them properly evaluate and then take risks, highlighting the pros and cons of the decision (often the pros are higher but get overlooked because of focus on the cons)
Start small - break down the challenge into small steps that can build experience and confidence over time. For example, if she wants to speak in public, start with a presentation to a colleague, then add a couple of people to the audience, then add the whole team, etc.
Encourage them to talk about their successes and highlight their role in achieving those.
Discuss failures in a constructive way, focusing on learning and improving strategies for the next try, as well as benefits such as lessons learned and knowledge gained. More on the psychology behind this in my video here.
Manage the pressure to conform by emphasizing the unique value that each woman's style and experience brings to the table rather than expecting them match men's overconfident bravado.