Confidence Matters: Growing the Next Generation of Women Leaders

by Patty McManus

“I can’t apply for that job —I haven’t done everything in the job description.”

“My boss wants to hear from me more in our team meetings … but I haven’t had time to consider all the factors.”

“I can’t ask for more money. What if they say no?”

If you can claim any of these comments as your own, welcome to the club. And chances are good if you can claim all three, you’re a woman.

I’m in the lucky position of mentoring and coaching a number of young women: members of the up-and-coming generations, who will be running the world in a few years.  Big jobs, advanced degrees from the best schools, and top leadership ratings don’t seem to matter when it comes to a pattern I’ve observed in our conversations:  women tend to be less confident than men — and may make self-limiting decisions as a result. 

The Self-Doubt Dilemma

It turns out this pattern of a lack of confidence is well-documented in research on the advancement of women. Here are just few examples:

  • Studies by Professor of Economics Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon found men initiate salary negotiations four times more often than women. According to Babcock, when women do negotiate, they ask for 30 percent less money than men do.
  • A Bain & Company study found that 40% of respondents believe that women undersell their experience and capabilities.
  • In a massive KPMG study on the advancement of women leaders, while nearly two-thirds of respondents expressed a desire to someday become senior leaders, just 40 percent could actually picture themselves in those roles.
  • In a review of personnel records at Hewlett-Packard, as cited in The Atlantic, women at HP applied for promotions when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications for the job; men applied when they met 60 percent.

Are Women Just Less Capable?

One might conclude that women’s reluctance is founded on fact—that maybe they are less capable. That conclusion would be wrong. In study after study, women are shown to have just as much going for us as our male colleagues in terms of what we know and what we can do.   It turns out that competence is not women’s problem.  The more likely barrier is confidence. When it’s lacking, women tend to limit themselves to a greater degree. 

Make no mistake, significant structural, institutional, and cultural barriers for women leaders persist.  In our organizations, we have to keep making progress on matters like maternity leave, child care, and managing long-held unconscious biases that leak into decision making.  As we do, hopefully at a much faster pace than ever, doors will open.  And we need to ensure that the next generation of women leaders is ready to step through those doors. 

Crank Up Confidence: Four Ways

In my experience, four strategies are particularly helpful in combating lack of confidence.

1. Act from our authentic best.

For women, a strong source of confidence stems from an honest assessment of our own values, expertise, and strengths. At the intersection of our personal capabilities, our passions, and our value to the organization lies our authentic selves. This is the essence of who we are (not a job title); it’s what we stand for and value. It’s what gives us traction in a competitive environment. Moving forward from that authentic center is crucial to stepping up our confidence. As the remarkable choreographer and dancer Martha Graham said, “Nobody cares if you can’t dance well. Just get up and dance. Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.”

2. Expect that self-doubting voice, and talk back.

There is something about acknowledging and accepting that self-doubting inner talk that takes away some of its power. We can recognize that voice exists, and talk back to it. “Oh, that old nagging voice is back,” we may tell ourselves. And then go ahead and do the thing anyway. What’s the worst that can happen? After all, how many times when we’ve doubted ourselves, yet took action, did something terrible happen?

3. Act our way to confidence.

In one of the most-viewed TED talks of all time, social psychologist Amy Cuddy describes the value of the “fake it till you make it” strategy when confidence is the barrier.  If you haven’t seen it, her talk is worth 20 minutes of your time. Professor Cuddy describes her research on the positive psychological impact of taking a powerful physical stance. Based on what she’s shared, I have actually advised my clients to prepare for challenging conversations or tasks by locking themselves in the bathroom, placing their hands on their hips for two minutes and standing tall … even strutting around a little bit. Granted, by the time they get to that point, they have prepared and they’re ready to succeed. Lack of competence is usually not the issue, anyway.

4. Seek out a supportive mentor.

Securing a mentor can be an important step in shoring up confidence for women. In the KPMG study mentioned above, receiving praise from mentors and leaders was the single biggest factor influencing women’s perceptions of themselves, more powerful even than receiving raises and promotions.

In a Forbes, Inc. article about this topic, Wendy Cukier, Vice President, Research and Innovation, and Founder & Director, Diversity Institute, Ryerson University, said, “Finding a good mentor can be as important to your career as finding a soul mate is to the rest of your life. Reach out to people you admire. Don’t sit waiting until a mentor finds you.”

It seems clear that on many levels, improving self-confidence is a major key to women’s advancement. We can boost our confidence every day by being buoyed and inspired by other capable women — women around us, and those who came before.

Tags : women executives women in leadership women leaders confidence