Closing the Gender Confidence Gap

It’s no secret that the world needs more women who are shamelessly confident in their ability to serve as role models and change agents. Your organization is no exception. This week’s blog posting will focus upon the self-imposed handcuffs that can hold us back from making our mark as a serious contender for the next rung on our career ladder if we aren’t quick to intervene.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer and author, Sheryl Sandberg, wrote a best-selling book based upon the following premise: women should take more risks and responsibility for their own success. The book, titled “Lean In”, includes an anecdote about a business breakfast for Silicon Valley executives that was once hosted by Sandberg at Facebook’s headquarters. The invited guests; most of whom were men, also included a handful of female executives.

In her book, Sandberg reflects upon a defining moment she observed as the hostess of this business meeting. Although every guest was invited to help themselves to the breakfast buffet before taking their seat at the conference table, the women waited until the men prepared their plates before taking their food last. Perhaps more shockingly, none of the women in attendance took a seat at the large conference table, and instead demurred and remained in their seats off to the side of the room. According to Sandberg, this was the moment when she realized, “that in addition to facing institutional obstacles, women face a battle from within…a moment when I witnessed how an internal barrier can alter women’s behavior.”

Perhaps this book evoked so much world-wide reaction and media hype because it was the first time a high profile female executive spoke up about the internal barriers that can hold women back from reaching the leadership positions they desire. As women, we have always known, or at least wondered if this is true.

Many of us talk ourselves out of taking a seat at the executive table, or contributing to the discussions taking place in the board room. Many of us allow our male counterparts to speak for us, or to take the lead in solving business problems. When somebody needs to take notes or prepare minutes for a meeting, we often volunteer ourselves for such gender-stereotyped tasks or quietly assume that role when our male counterpart suggests we might be better because, “we have better handwriting”.

With all of the well-documented evidence showing that women have a more difficult time reaching career success than men do, it is even more important to advocate for ourselves and close the confidence gap shared by many women in comparison to men. Why do we constantly sell ourselves short by hiding or minimizing our contributions? Instead, the unfortunate reality is that we all too often get in our own way from being taken seriously as a confident contender. Why? Is it because we don’t want to come across as bragging or offensive to someone else who might have a problem with our outward displays of confidence in our abilities?

Each time we sell ourselves short, we widen the confidence gap and deny our true potential. We demote ourselves before anyone can contemplate our worth. We are often the first to criticize and harshly judge ourselves with an unforgiving eye for unreachable perfection. We tend to minimize our own needs in an effort to put others first. We get into the habit of second guessing what our gut tells us, and hold back from sharing our ideas or saying what is on our mind. When we do speak up or contribute during a meeting, we often begin our sentences with common phrases such as, “excuse me please”; “can I say something?”; “I sort of think that…”, or “I’m sorry to interrupt”. We are apologetic in our delivery, and tentative in our conversational tone. Ironically, those of us who are confident and straight forward in our approach are sometimes subjected to being called names by our female peers.

What I have realized throughout my career of helping others – including myself – to reach our full potential, is that we hold the ultimate power for how others perceive our value. We owe it to ourselves to take a chance as opposed to sabotaging any opportunity for substantive success. We have to ask for what we want as opposed to convincing ourselves it is not ok to do so. Each time we hold ourselves back, we demonstrate to others that we aren’t confident or capable.

Today’s the day to take control over your career. It’s time to take that first step towards closing the gender-based confidence gap. Once we begin to truly see ourselves as strong, exceptional and worthy contenders, so too will others.

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