A coworker recently commented, “It’s true that women are less confident on the job than men.” As you might expect, I couldn’t just let that statement slide. “You don’t really think that’s true,” I said. With some trepidation, he said that he did. I asked for his sources of information, and decided right then to figure out more!
Part of my shock at this commentary on confidence was due to my past experience. In my dealings with male and female leaders, I have found no correlation between gender and self-confidence. I would say that women were generally more willing to admit their faults and limitations. Men, on the other hand, more often buried their insecurities, hoping that people wouldn’t notice. (They did anyway.)
Often the issue of perceived confidence boils down to social conditioning. According to Dr. Lois Frankel, author of Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers, women learn as girls that they are expected to be “nice.” This meant being quiet, taking care of others and not asking for what you want. These behaviors in adulthood, such as excessive apologizing, stating opinions as questions or asking permission to take action, sabotage women’s careers.
Experts like Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., have identified nonverbal behaviors that women often use that convey weakness. Women generally tilt their heads more, which is a sign of attentiveness that is also interpreted as submission. Women who twirl their hair or play with jewelry are exhibiting girlish ways of dealing with stress that erodes their power. Likewise, nodding and smiling convey engagement and approval, but can derail your efforts to broach a serious subject or make a credible argument.
On the flip side, exuding confidence brings potential pitfalls for women leaders. A meta-analysis of research, conducted at Northwestern University, found:
Women are viewed as less qualified or natural in most leadership roles, the research shows, and secondly, when women adopt culturally masculine behaviors often required by these roles, they may be viewed as inappropriate or presumptuous.
Women must walk a tightrope between being perceived as too nice (and weak) or overly aggressive (and witchy). Women who can display both stereotypically male and female characteristics appear to be most successful. A Stanford University study states that “for women to be successful they must simultaneously present themselves as self–confident and dominant while tempering these qualities with displays of communal characteristics.” Women who were good self-monitors and knew how to adapt situationally actually achieved more career success than men.
True confidence comes from your core, from knowing who you are and what you can and cannot do. Confidence can be bolstered by achievement, but only in the sense that attaining something meaningful reinforces and expands upon that unwavering core. It is incumbent upon all leaders, male and female, to feed this healthy sense of self, measuring success not by what others think, but by what you know to be true and in the best interests of the greater good.
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