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The Confidence Tightrope: 4 Things To Ask Yourself At Work

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

By Julie Castro Abrams

When it comes to leadership, we know men and women are given different treatment. This is starkly evident in the inequity in venture funding - only 2% goes to female founders. Of course this difference goes beyond just the monetary investment they are getting. Women are treated differently every step of the way: 85% of women founders have reported sexual harassment when seeking funding. And a pervasive cultural bias has been documented that is worth exploring. When venture capitalists vet women they ask about safety, responsibility, and security. Men, however, get asked about their accomplishments and dreams. In addition, men are more likely to receive feedback at work related to specific behaviors or skills they can use. Women on the other hand are evaluated on characteristics they are perceived to have or not have. Why are we asking women to be confident, while asking men to show more confidence? What does this say about our culture and what is the impact on women’s leadership behaviors?

One impact is that women are told to use confidence to overcome systemic barriers and responsibility is placed on women if they fail. However, that is fraught with many challenges because there is a penalty for being over confident AND under confident. I call it a tight rope which is impossible to walk consistently. Stanford calls it the “likeability penalty”. However you describe it, here is what we hear: If female founders were more confident, then they could gain more investments. If a female employee was more confident then she would ask for a raise. Yet, when trying to follow that advice, women often fall off the tightrope and are seen as bossy or worse.

“When women fail to achieve career goals, leaders are prone to attribute it to a lack of self-confidence. And when women demonstrate high levels of confidence through behaviors, such as being extroverted or assertive, they risk overdoing it and, ironically, being perceived as lacking confidence.” The Harvard Business Review perfectly illustrates How Confidence Is Weaponized Against Women.

The common theme between all of these examples: When women fail, women are blamed.

So what can we do?

  1. Stop blaming women We need to reframe the problems we are seeing. When issues of pay inequity come up it is not because women lack confidence when negotiating. The system penalizes women for asking so we don’t. When women founders aren’t receiving the same investments as male counterparts it isn’t because they lack confidence pitching their company. Instead, we need to view these challenges as places where structural inequity likely lives. What should you be asking yourself at work to achieve this? When have I viewed failure as an individual problem not a company issue? Where is our company failing women and how can we address that?

  2. Build a new lexicon of leadership The word confidence is likely here to stay, but are we using it correctly? Horrible decisions can be made confidently. So what is the leadership skill we are trying to convey when we use the word confidence? Decisive decision making? A positive outlook? Ability to build team rapport? An ability to ride out short term set-backs to achieve long term goals? What questions should you be asking yourself at work to build this new lexicon? What leadership skills do we say we value? What leadership skills are we actually valuing during performance reviews and promotions? Finally, how do we address the difference between those two answers?

  3. Center women of color When you center the most vulnerable people, you ensure they are valued and successful and the majority always get their needs met. This means deeply listening, being open to change, and understanding what a different system could look like. What questions should you be asking yourself at work to center women of color? Are women of color in every room where strategy is set and decisions are being made? How many of those suggestions have been implemented?

  4. Women must support women We know we will need to build these systems together. The other side of this confidence conundrum is that for women who have achieved success, they feel a constant need to prove their place. Unfortunately, this can mean that supporting other women can be seen as a risky venture. This attitude must change. We win by supporting each other. What questions should you be asking yourself at work to support women? When was the last time I brought another woman into the conversation? When have I recommended a woman for the promotion or elevated her role on a project?

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