Various study results have shown that women often underestimate their abilities, while men overestimate theirs. Known as The Confidence Gap, the result is that women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, don’t ask for as high salaries or take as many risks as their male counterparts. That a lack of self-confidence at work is a problem for many women, is borne out in my own leadership coaching practice, where my clients raise it consistently and more often than any other challenge they want to work on.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that self-confidence is an issue for all women and there are studies that say it is not women’s self-confidence, but how others perceive their confidence, that’s the problem. That may be true too, or lack of confidence may come up in different, less obvious ways. In KPMG’s recent Women’s Leadership Study, most women said they felt confident professionally – ranging from extremely (26%) to somewhat (46%) – but, when it came to taking risks at work, nearly one-third of the women surveyed said “not being confident enough” was the biggest reason they didn’t take more risks. No matter how you look at it, it appears that for many women, a lack of confidence is getting in their way.
To see why this is, you might take a look at our formative years in elementary school. From a young age, girls are praised for good behavior – raising our hands to speak, being quiet when asked, and for coloring within the lines. In fact, in a previous version of KPGM’s study, when women were asked what lessons they learned growing up, the most popular response at 86%, was “being nice to others”, while only 68% remember being taught to “believe in yourself.”
Are women doomed then, to let their confidence get the better of them while their male colleagues rise to the top? Definitely not! We can reprogram our brains to increase our confidence and our propensity to take action on opportunities, to be less risk-averse. Here are a few ways to do that:
Track your successes
We are successful all the time, yet rarely do we acknowledge it. Our perceived failures, on the other hand, loom large. To change that, start keeping a success journal in which, at the end of every day, you log your ‘wins’. They can be small, like going to the gym when you didn’t feel like it, or big, like asking for a raise. Writing them down reminds you of your accomplishments, is a way to celebrate what you’ve achieved, and gets you (and your brain) used to thinking of yourself as successful. Bonus: when it comes time for performance reviews, you have a record of your accomplishments.
When situations don’t turn out as you had hoped, instead of feeling that you’ve failed, think about what you’ve learned. What can you take away from the situation to apply to the next one? By adopting a growth mindset, you will start to shift your focus away from performance and outcome and more toward growth. What you once thought of as a risk, you will start to see as an opportunity. This shift in perception will not just give you more confidence but will help you grow in your career as you form a reinforcing confidence loop where risk turn into success which begets confidence and more risk taking.
Think about worst case scenarios: how bad is it really?
Instead of avoiding that leap, that step that you know you should take but of which you are afraid, consider the worst-case scenario. How bad is it? How likely is it that this worst-case will materialize? What is it worth to you to do it and what will it cost you not to? Once you’ve gone through that process, re-evaluate. Maybe that leap isn’t as big as you originally thought.
Be the teacher
Many successful women (and men) suffer from Imposter Syndrome at one time or another. That is, they feel like they are frauds and that they don’t deserve their success. One way to get over that feeling is to teach others what you know. Become a mentor to someone. When you see others benefit from your expertise, you may actually start to believe that you do know a lot and you are deserving of what you’ve achieved.
Do it. Don’t overthink it
I have a favorite quote from Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, “Done is better than perfect.” Women are so much more likely to toil over their work, to hold back submitting an idea that isn’t perfectly formed, to delay action until they know everything is in order, and that is just too slow. Often by the time, we are “ready,” the ship has sailed. Someone else has responded and the opportunity to share our greatness is gone. Don’t worry about perfect, get your brilliance out into the world and hone it later. Go for good enough.
Change your self-talk
Words really do matter, especially when it comes to the words we say to ourselves. How often do you tell yourself you aren’t enough? You aren’t smart enough, pretty enough, fit enough…? Think about more subtle versions such as, “I’m not very good at ‘x’” or “so-and-so is better at ‘x’ than me.” Become conscious of the language of your thoughts and when you catch yourself in a put-down, turn it around and rewrite the statement on paper as an affirmation of something great about yourself. “Instead of I’m not good at math, how about I’m awesome at figuring out how to get things done?” When you change your self-talk, you change your brain. You think differently. You build confidence.
While by no means the sole reason, or even the primary reason, for the lack of women in corporate leadership, self-confidence is a limiting factor disabling many women from getting, and taking advantage of, the opportunities that lead to advancement. But the story can be rewritten, the brain rewired. This part is up to us.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn and the author has given permission for republication on Lioness.
About Amy Kan
Amy Kan is a certified leadership coach who works with women to help them overcome the challenges that hold them back from achieving life success. An advocate of authentic leadership, Amy helps women identify and embrace their unique strengths to develop into the leaders they were born to be.
- The Confidence Gap, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, The Atlantic, May 2014
- How Gender Stereotypes Kill a Woman’s Self-Confidence, Working Knowledge, Harvard Business School, Dina Gerdeman, February 25, 2019