Why it’s time for women to reclaim their confidence

Why it’s time for women to reclaim their confidence

Anneli Blundell.

In the workplace, confidence is a critical launch pad for new skills, new opportunities and new jobs.

Confidence for women is a conundrum, however. Women are told to be more confident, yet when they display more confidence, they are seen as arrogant, and when they downplay their confidence, they become invisible.

Simply telling women to ‘be more confident’, it seems, misses the point.

As a result of being conditioned to show less confidence and being penalised for being overly confident, women are more likely to wait too long before acting and putting themselves forward.

Women hold back while men push forward – and so men are rewarded with jobs they have no experience in, assignments that will stretch them, and opportunities they might not be ready for.

What are the unwritten rules women are supposed to follow at work? And what is the resulting backlash when these rules aren’t followed?

Starting out equally

Women and men are born with equal confidence. These levels are mostly equal until within two to five years of entering the workforce, when women start reporting confidence at lower rates.

And despite equal ambition levels when entering the workforce, after 10 years, women’s ambition levels start to drop.

Women report lower levels of confidence in themselves – not confidence that they can succeed in their work environment.

Cultural messaging wears them down, and they lose confidence in their ability to get ahead. Modesty creates influence and confidence creates backlash.

So, even if women feel confident, they are often rewarded for downplaying that confidence in the workplace.

Women are not born less confident; they are conditioned to display less confidence.

Adapting the play for confidence

Adapting the play is about changing your behaviour during the game – in this case, to overcome the confidence penalty.

This means understanding your own relationship with confidence and the impact society’s conditioning has had on how you choose to own it.

If you wait for confidence to show up, you’ll never get off the couch. The irony is that confidence is just like fitness — to get fit, you must exercise. You must do the very thing you are not confident in, so you can build your confidence.

Once you get into action, you create a feedback loop of competency that demonstrates (to yourself and to others) that you can learn, you can grow and you are capable.

Back your nous, not your knowledge

The quickest way to lose confidence is to compare yourself to someone you perceive to know more, achieve more and handle more than you.

But if you think about it, they had to start somewhere. No accomplished person ever started with a full set of skills. They were (and still are) a perpetual work in progress.

And so, the key to being as competent as the next person is to trust your ability to learn.

Accept the label

If you feel confident on the inside and show confidence on the outside, be okay with the label of ‘arrogant’.

If you need someone on side, you may ‘tone it down’ in the moment, but if this doesn’t matter to you, then let others believe whatever they like.

The more people see healthy confidence in women, the more we normalise the behaviour for all confident women.

The Gender Penalty by Anneli Blundell

The Gender Penalty by Anneli Blundell.

Challenge the value of over-confidence

The most pervasive part of this problem is the over-investment in the value of confidence.

Challenge the prevailing stereotypes. Shift the conversation from building confident women to challenging overconfident men and dismantle the prejudice that punishes one and rewards the other.

When someone appears overly confident (and simultaneously persuasive), challenge their stance – especially if you have counter-information based on facts.

Don’t be swayed by their confidence; be curious about the basis of it. Ask for more information. Ask for evidence. And don’t let their confidence shake yours.

Value low confidence

Low confidence and caution appear as hesitancy, but they are not the same. One is based on a lack of self-belief and the other on a need to take care before moving forward.

In pursuit of improving the perception of confidence, do not give up your intuitive response to risk.

Make sure you understand the difference between low confidence due to conditioning and low confidence due to caution, concern or instinct that tells you to be more careful. The distinction is critical and you must not to ignore your caution in favour of appearing confident.

You can choose confidence. It is not about building it; it’s about reclaiming it. Be confident in your character, not confident in your competence.

With this as your guiding mindset, you will always be up for any challenge, whether you’re ‘ready for it’ or not. The key is to begin so we can change this stereotype.

This is an edited extract from The Gender Penalty: Turning obstacles into opportunities for women at work (BACCA House Press) by Anneli Blundell. Purchase a copy of the book here.