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Among all the disparities between men and women in the workplace, be it between levels of pay, positions of executive authority or governance roles at board level, the common factor running through them is a disparity in confidence.
Studies have shown that, at work, women are significantly less self-assured than men and less likely to self-promote or self-advocate, through fear of negative repercussions. Research continues to find there is no gap between performance or ability in men and women; the difference is a matter of self-perception. For women to continue to smash glass ceilings, confidence is just as important as competence.
Women who manifest this confidence gap at work are hurting their chances of success. As Katty Kay and Claire Shipman wrote in their 2014 book, The Confidence Code, “underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in. Overqualified and over-prepared, too many women still hold back.” Five years later this problem is as prominent as ever.
From interns to chief executives, “imposter syndrome” prevails. The term refers to women feeling as though they don’t deserve their job, that their lack of ability and knowledge will be discovered at any minute, making them feel unworthy and vulnerable. I’ve experienced it myself.
Of course men are not exempt from feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness, yet studies indicate that they tend not to let these feelings affect their day-to-day lives to the extent that women do. Imposter syndrome continues to deny exceptionally capable women seats at the top table, and fuels the inequality associated with power dynamics that underpins so much gender discrimination in the workplace.
As long as it remains difficult for women to believe in their abilities at work, it is unlikely we will see change. The good news is that there are many practical things that can be done to shift this pattern. Developing a strong support network of peers and inspirational mentors is one. It’s never too late to start building this group. Being surrounded by people who understand the challenges you’re facing — including from a confidence perspective — can considerably alleviate feelings of inferiority.
Think of this group as a team of advisers or “loving critics”. Include people from other industries and at different stages of their career from you who you can learn from, practise on, seek advice from — women and men who have your back. These cheerleaders are there for the challenging times, but they also give you a sense of perspective. Sometimes they will make you laugh at situations and at other times they will pull you back from the ledge.
Anyone who has ever felt insecure at work will know that it can seem easier to not draw attention to yourself, to just stay quiet and not raise your head above the parapet. Women tend to be more risk-averse — or are perceived as being so. To combat this misconception it’s vital to push ourselves outside our comfort zones and face insecurities head on.
Simple actions, like always actively participating in meetings, brainstorming sessions or new projects at work, will start to change our perception of ourselves and those of others. Speak up, even if you don’t feel like it, and as you start to find your voice, your confidence will grow, and it will be noticed that you have opinions to be listened to. Once you have found your voice it’s easier to speak up for your achievements, to celebrate the achievements of others, and to start to challenge the status quo. So put your hand up for the next project, promotion or pay rise.
When I consider the impact that self-confidence has on women’s ability to thrive at work, I am reminded of the often-quoted statistic from a Hewlett-Packard internal report that men apply for a job when they meet only 60 per cent of the qualifications, whereas women apply only if they meet 100 per cent of them. Think about this the next time you hesitate to speak up or ask for what you really want. Getting out of our comfort zones is like flexing a muscle — the more we do it the easier it becomes.
If we all adopt this new way of thinking, imagine the ripple effect on the generation of women behind us and our collective efforts in reaching greater equality.
The writer is co-founder of AllBright, a collective to empower women
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