For women in the workplace, building, maintaining or even regaining confidence in our professional lives can be a major challenge. Many influential women from Beyoncé Knowles to PepsiCo’s CEO, Indra Nooyi, have struggled with feelings of self-doubt.
Research from the Harvard Business Review shows that working women, including female business leaders, often face bias when it comes to how others view their confidence. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why women hold fewer leadership positions than men and only a quarter of women ask for a raise compared to their male counterparts. But working women shouldn’t have to conform to the societal expectation that they must acquire more traditionally masculine qualities to appear more self-confident.
While there are deeply ingrained systems that keep women from gaining influence and power at work, female business leaders can uplift themselves and each other by dispelling myths about confidence and learning how to better cope with any insecurities and preconceived notions they may face in the workplace.
Myth #1: I Must Feel Perfect Before I Am Confident
In their book “The Confidence Code,” Katty Kay and Claire Shipman show how a lot of women harbor this mentality. It holds us back from answering questions, asking for a raise or applying for jobs. For instance, women at Hewlett-Packard applied for promotions at their workplace only when they felt they were 100 percent qualified for the job, whereas men applied when they met 60 percent of the job description.
Similarly, when asked about giving young women extra responsibilities and leadership opportunities in her campaign, Hillary Clinton says that women often ask, “Do you think I’m ready?’ But when I ask a man, he goes, ‘How high, how fast, when do I start?!’”
Clinton’s response was that women are too hard on themselves and, as a result, sell themselves short.
One thing professional women in particular need to remember is that perfection is impossible. You can strive for mastery, but mistakes will always be made — and the most you can do is learn from those mistakes. Plus, it’s important to remember that confidence and even mastery are developing processes with no realistic end goal of perfection. Instead, let mastery guide you on your way to confidence. As Kay and Shipman say, “The confidence you get from mastery is contagious. It spreads…mastering one thing gives you the confidence to try something else.” Knowing you have mastered certain skills gives you a feeling of emotional security that is kin to confidence.”
Myth #2: Confidence Means Being Loud and Pushy
We typically think of confident leaders as loud, ruthless and extroverted; dominant types with stereotypically masculine qualities. But confidence can be observant and stoic as well. According to counseling expert Meg Selig, while “extrovert confidence” is a reality, so is “introvert confidence.” While it’s not showy, this confidence style prevails by a person who demonstrates strong values and sticks to them. As such, respect for their skills, communication and modesty help them succeed.
It doesn’t matter if you’re an extrovert or an introvert (or both!), you can always learn to be a caring and effective leader. Author Carolyn Webb offered her own definition of confidence as being “how you feel when you’re being your best self.”
Myth #3: You Either Have Confidence or You Don’t
Often the perfectionist aspect of confidence gets the best of us. Recent research indicates that self-criticism is one barrier to women’s success in the workforce. Because women are often socialized to be modest and polite, it’s no surprise that we underestimate our own skills.
Some people are naturally confident when they lead their teams, brainstorm strategies or pitch ideas, but confidence is a learned skill that anyone can gain. No one expects you to jump onto a tennis court and play like a pro. Confidence works the same way: it’s a learnable skill and practice helps you excel.
Despite facing bias at work, women have some power when it comes to improving their inner confidence. One is to increase your “confidence quotient” by taking risks, learning new skills and setting small and large goals. To reflect an inner sense of confidence, you could even write out positive affirmations and scripts so you know how to better handle mistakes.
Sheryl Sandberg said, “Confidence and leadership are muscles. You must learn to use them or you don’t.”
As we research and gain more awareness of our own confidence (or sometimes lack thereof), working women can more efficiently address not only the inner, but the systematic issues which keep women unempowered in the workforce. As we recognize that it’s totally normal to doubt ourselves, feel nervous or imperfect, we can be aware of the issue and focus on our positive attributes instead.