The success of women in the workplace is stifled for many reasons. Sexual harassment, unjust hiring practices, and a lack of opportunity for securing executive or leadership positions are among many of the more discussed issues. One that isn’t commonly covered — which has an insidious power to prevent women in business from achieving their potential — is confidence.
Due to many ingrained societal biases, women can suffer from a lack of confidence — or a perceived lack of confidence. Women are less likely than men to apply for jobs they are equally as qualified for and still have to spend more time than men thinking about what they should wear in meetings to command the respect of their peers.
Though it appears to be changing for the better, today’s workplace culture doesn’t exactly inspire confidence among women. In fact, it sometimes does everything in its power to accomplish the opposite.
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Why Is There a Confidence Issue in the First Place?
One challenge faced by women in the workplace that can cause a lack of confidence — known as “The Confidence Gap” — is the disparity of gender representation in business. Diving deeper: 6.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women; that percentage actually breaks the record.
If women don’t see other women in positions of power, they’ll find it harder to envision themselves there. That’s why it isn’t surprising to find out that in a 2016 survey of 8,400 adults, 75 percent of the men said they entered the workforce with confidence that they could rise to senior management; while only 63 percent of women saw that as a future path from the start. Having role models is more important than we know.
Women typically don’t advocate for themselves as much as men do, though they are equally as competent. Why is that? Well, maybe because of the stereotypes that lay at the foundation of most industries; stereotypes about both men and women. “The stereotypical qualities of effective leaders — such as aggression, ambition, and dominance — tend to overlap with the stereotypical qualities of men more than women,” writes Fast Company.
Hiring biases coupled with stereotype-laden media portrayals have cemented this idea of the classic CEO, and he is almost always a man. If everyone is telling you that you don’t look like a CEO, that you have qualities unlike a CEO, or if you do have these qualities that you are “unfeminine,” sometimes you begin to believe it.
Therefore, women seem to have lower levels of confidence in male-dominated industries (finance, construction, etc.) as opposed to stereotypically female-dominated industries (fashion, beauty, etc.).
Obviously there are many women in historically male-dominated fields, and vice versa; however, a study in 2018 found that women assigned to male-majority teams were less willing to become team leaders than women assigned to female-majority teams. The conclusion being “women in male-majority teams are less confident in their relative performance, less influential, and more swayed by others in team discussions.” The study described this as a “self-reinforcing process.”
Does Confidence Lead to Success?
Though the answers may seem obvious, it’s important to outline why self-confidence is important and how it contributes to success.
There is a jarring statistic: “Men apply for a job when they meet only 60 [percent] of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100 [percent] of them.” From the outset, this shows how a comparative lack of confidence can hold women back from even considering advanced opportunities.
Beyond that, lower confidence leads to a resistance to speaking up, whether that be with ideas, concerns, or injustices. If you don’t think your idea is good, you’re unlikely to pitch it to a room full of people. But who knows what that idea would have become?
Another key part of success is the ability to say ‘no’ and to stand up for oneself. Lacking confidence hinders that ability. If all your energy is being drained on tasks that are below you, you won’t be able to focus on what is truly important to your career success. Confidence affects everything from ambition to execution. Truly, its importance cannot be understated.
In fact, scientists have been researching this subject for decades. Conclusions warn of overconfidence, finding that many have inflated senses of their own abilities.
Nonetheless, there is still a correlation between confidence and success. Unsurprisingly, more confidence usually equals more success. It not only affects how you feel, but it shifts the way people see you. And for women especially, the issue is less likely overconfidence, but a lack of confidence.
How Can We Boost Our Confidence?
With that established, there are numerous ways that women can work to build their confidence and counter these societal trends.
One way, which is a direct solution to the issue of representation in leadership positions, is implementing gender quotas. California was the first state in the U.S. to start this, requiring “all publicly-held domestic or foreign corporations whose principal executive offices are located in California to have at least one female director on their boards by December 31, 2019…” If there are more women leading, then more women will begin to believe that they can lead too.
Another way women can increase their confidence is by simply being aware of the issue. Once knowledgeable about the fact that it’s not ability as much as confidence that is limiting success, women may begin to notice small, innate actions that are leading into this self-fulfilling prophecy. A key example is saying ‘sorry.’ Women need to stop apologizing in business. Entrepreneur writes, “This tendency to apologize is dangerous; it affects the way young professionals feel about themselves, and it can even set them back in their career.”
The apology is just one of many seemingly small, subconsciously-sourced actions that express a lack of confidence. Another is biting your tongue in meetings. Don’t do it! If it’s a good idea, or at least you think it could be, spit it out. It’s good practice just to get your voice out there and command the attention of the room.
A final suggestion for boosting confidence in the workplace is creating a community of women around you. Whether that be people you met through work or through events; people who are in your industry or people who aren’t. Simply being around people who are self-assured, successful, or supportive can make a world of difference. It is much easier to face these problems together.
Also, it’s important to take advice from those who have done it before. Read books by female executives. Go to events where the panelists are female founders and CEOs. Prove to yourself that it’s a possibility. Then go and make that possibility a reality.