In advance of International Women’s Day I asked this question of trusted friends and colleagues. I had expected comments about supporting development and creating a more positive work experience. But it was much more personal: the overwhelming theme was confidence, encouraging women to be more confident and take more risks.
So what can be done to address this confidence gap affecting half of our population?
There’s no quick fix, unfortunately. Apparently until the age of eight, confidence levels in girls and boys are similar; it’s only after this age that girls’ levels start to dip and this confidence equality never recovers. Even in a gender-neutral era, from the cradle we are bombarded with gender stereotypes of what girls and boys should be. Maybe by the age of eight some of this has seeped into our consciousness?
Perhaps I’ve subliminally indoctrinated her, but my youngest daughter loves all things traditionally non-girly; she adores and thrives on football, technology, science and maths. I see her interests being positively encouraged in the vast majority of situations but little chinks of prejudice remain, including being asked if my daughter would mind being in a more advanced maths team with all boys. A well-intended question no doubt, yet still laden with stereotypical baggage.
Confidence vs competence
Research has shown that we equate confidence with competence. I’m sure we all have a few examples of people who are supremely confident, yet nowhere near as competent as they would have you believe. Even being aware of this bias could help, focusing on evidence of competence rather than the confidence being displayed.
The societal shift created by movements like #MeToo is encouraging, but are there changes we can make within ourselves as women that will also create a significant shift? If confidence is equated with competence, how can we confidently demonstrate our skills and experience? What is holding us back from doing this?
My industry is about building and protecting reputations to help achieve desired goals. While women are naturally good communicators, they tend to trail behind men in taking opportunities to demonstrate it, from opportunities to provide a media comment to using LinkedIn as a way to demonstrate their competence or, heaven forbid, appearing as a panellist or speaker at an event.
Men consistently outnumber women as commentators in the media, on TV panels and as speakers at events. In my experience that’s because not only are men given more opportunities, but they also seize more. At Perceptive we are trying to make a small difference by ensuring our own events have at least 50 per cent female panels and speakers. This is just the tip of the confidence crisis.
Many who shared their views on encouraging female talent commented on the importance of supporting females from an early age and throughout their careers. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by supportive colleagues, mentors, family and friends. This support has been instrumental in building a multi-award-winning company and the best team I’ve ever worked with.
Yet, there remains a voice in my head cautioning me against getting too big for my boots. Having spoken to dozens of men and women, many of whom are at the top of their careers or chosen life paths, the vast majority of women share these confidence zapping thoughts. Men? Not so much.
Time and again research has shown success and likeability in women are mutually exclusive, so maybe that’s a factor holding us back. But it is difficult to be what you can’t see, so to encourage other women and the next generation, maybe it’s time to take a risk and seize that opportunity to shine with both hands.
- Julie Moulsdale is MD of Perceptive Communicators.