It is a loaded word, especially in the context of women in business. How many times have you heard, women lack confidence?! It doesn’t sit right with me and for years I have been trying to articulate exactly why. I have, admittedly and with discomfort, found myself using the word confidence because I lacked a better word to describe how women were often describing themselves when starting their new business or negotiating better working terms. Quite normal really- to lack confidence when starting something new. How about we start recognising when people are assuming confidence without the substance to back it up.

Let’s start with the facts. Confidence is a feeling and is rooted in our perception of ourselves regardless of any tangible external reality. Yep, that is true- let that sink in. We are so often fooled by what appears to be confidence; the million followers, the titles at work, the celebrity status. None of those things ensure confidence. Getting a promotion at your job doesn’t necessarily make you more confident in your professional abilities and having a 10K following definitely does not guarantee confidence in yourself. Mark Manson has written some insights around confidence;

As The School of Life says, “It’s humbling to realise just how many great achievements haven’t been the result of superior talent or technical know-how, merely that strange buoyancy of the soul we call confidence.”

Stop telling women to feel more confident.

Instead change organisational systems and processes so that they treat men and women equally, on the basis of competence. While confidence is an ostensibly gender-neutral concept, research found that confidence is not just gendered — it’s weaponised against women. The “performance plus confidence equals power and influence” formula is gendered. Successful women cannot “lean in” on a structure that cannot support their weight without their opportunities (and the myth) collapsing around them. Popular messaging about how women must change to appear more self-confident as a key to their success isn’t just false. It also reflects how the burden of managing a gender-diverse workplace is placed on the female employees themselves. Where their male colleagues are allowed to focus on their own objectives, women who are expected to care for others are shouldering an unfair load. This prosocial (double) standard does not appear in any job description but it is, indeed, the key performance indicator against which access, power, and influence will be granted to successful women. Men are held to a lower standard.

The fallacy of meritocracy in male-dominated organizations is well-documented. Paying attention to implicit gender biases in promotion decisions is an important first step for organisations to develop more inclusive cultures. For example, often without making it explicit, performance appraisals contain nearly twice the amount of language about being nice and warm for women than for men. Research shows that women are systematically less likely to receive specific feedback tied to outcomes, both when they receive praise and when the feedback is developmental. In other words, men are offered a clearer picture of what they are doing well and more-specific guidance of what is needed to get to the next level.

What are the Downsides of Confidence?

Harvard Business Review reports;

Our research not only exposes the gendered nature of the confidence critique, but it also disrupts the positive association between confidence and workplace success. While it’s true that attending to self-confidence has some benefits for women, for instance in our study it helped them to break down issues into realizable actions, facilitating a positive sense of agency, and providing a psychological salve for anxiety, in the longer term, these are outweighed by broader negative impacts on women’s mental health and gender equality. First, we found that the therapeutic effects of focusing on confidence are only temporary. Confidence was linked to more detrimental, longer-term effects, such as self-criticism, self-doubt, and overall poorer mental health. For instance, even when some women were unfairly treated in an evaluation or promotion, or suffered intimidation by male colleagues, they felt regretful that they did not “put themselves out there” or “seize opportunities” in those difficult moment(s). Rather than attributing culpability to their supervisors or colleagues, women tended to take full responsibility for matters outside of their control and, moreover, self-blamed. In psychoanalysis, self-blaming is a destructive and painful response to a physical loss or disappointment. The women in our study recognized that they had been unfairly treated. However, rather than directing their energy towards the organization, they were more likely to self-blame as a way to maintain the fantasy that their ambitions could be attained by exuding the right amount of self-confidence. Second, a focus on self-confidence is an individually oriented strategy, and distracts senior leaders from addressing more entrenched organizational barriers to gender equality, including stereotyping, work design, and the privileging of line roles over functional roles, which are more likely to be filled by women. Third, the overt focus on confidence leaves intact the underlying assumption that continuously exuding confidence is a positive aspiration. Our research on inclusive leadership presents a more nuanced picture. While confidence may be valuable in some situations (such as uncertainty), demonstrating humility and vulnerability has a humanizing effect necessary for creating psychological safety in others, and relatability. In other words, reflection, and openness can be healthy and valuable in terms of creating a more inclusive workplace.

Fake it til you make it?

Nah, I think there are better ways. Unfortunately, faking it till you make it can add to that imposter syndrome feeling. Faking your confidence or abilities to do something can be more damaging than productive. You may end up feeling more fraudulent than you were in the beginning. A slightly better approach is act as if. This is when you act as if you have what you want — or are who you want to be. I like to use this to test how I feel about something. When I act as if I have what I am seeking, I then check in with my body and see how it feels. It is a good way to test things out.

Nothing beats self-awareness, self-development and experience for building your confidence. You have to fail, try, win and lose to be confident. You also have to trust that if you are not feeling confident, there is a reason or reasons why that is. Be vulnerable enough to find out what you need to learn or experience first before you can feel confident. All of those suggestions have nothing to do with gender and that is the place I would like us to arrive. Valuing qualities and actions of people and rewarding them on merit, not on their privilege.

Know Your Value

We must resist systems that try and minimise us, especially when it comes to work. When you trust and really know your value, you will be more likely to ask for or negotiate better working conditions and earnings. When you know your value at home, you are more likely to ask for fairer, shared workload. When you know your value, you are more likely to stand up and speak out against harassment and gender stereotypes. When you know your value, you can lift others up and not cut other women or men down to get ahead. When you know your value, you can celebrate your successes and be an example of what we want to see more of in the world. That is real confidence.

A reminder of the advice we have all heard before-

The risk of not doing anything is in the end greater than the risk of messing up. Our fear of messing up should give way to the only real danger there is: that of never trying.

And we all can feel that strange buoyancy of the soul we call confidence.

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