How to really close the confidence gap | Women's Agenda

How to really close the confidence gap

Confidence. Sometimes we have it, and sometimes we don’t. We didn’t know whether to be relieved or dismayed when we started hearing the confessions of women who look like they’ve got this whole confidence thing sorted, only to discover that deep down they were struggling just like the rest of us.

The truth is we’re in good company. Fifty per cent of female managers and thirty-one per cent of male managers admit to feelings of self-doubt. But with a growing body of research finding that when it comes to our success at work confidence is more important than competence, you won’t be surprised to learn that finding ways to feel authentically confident is a critical step on our Lead Like A Woman journey.

One of the biggest challenges we’ve found is that many of us mistakenly believe that confidence requires us to behave like assertive jerks, demanding we get what we deserve, talking over the top of other people, and dismissing ideas that aren’t our own. While this behavior may sometimes work, it’s not actually what’s required for confidence.

Instead, researchers are finding that confidence is simply the ability to turn your thoughts into action. It’s what allows you to start acting, and risking and failing, and to stop mumbling and apologizing, and hesitating. With it you can take on the world; without it, you remain stuck on the starting block of your own potential.

But if confidence is as simple as turning our thoughts into action, why do we hesitate and hold ourselves back at work more frequently than our male colleagues? Why do we find feeling confident so challenging?

These are some of the questions researchers are still hotly debating. Some researchers chalk this up to biology, noting that not only does it appear that women have thirty per cent more neurons firing at any one time which can lead us to overthink things, but the cingulate gyrus, the brain’s worry wart appears to be larger making us much better at recognizing our mistakes and ruminating about them. Add to this the generally higher levels of estrogen and lower levels of testosterone coursing through our veins, and it’s no wonder we’re prone to avoiding conflict and risk, even at the cost of winning.

Yes, it does seem there may be good biological reasons why we lie awake at 3 am in the morning still going over the tiny passing criticism someone made days ago and why we have a tendency to over-prepare for things. But are we really just victims of how our brains are wired when it comes to confidence?

Other researchers argue that our lack of confidence is also shaped by our social experiences. Let’s face it, for most of us, school is where we were first rewarded for being good and doing things the right way.  Add to this the social experiences we may have encountered at home, (don’t be too bossy) and at work (don’t be too nice but don’t be too assertive), and our anxieties about the way we look (only two per cent of women are confident enough to describe ourselves as beautiful) and  it’s easy to see why we start to hesitate, hold ourselves back and dim ourselves down, rather than confidently turning our thoughts into action.

While it’s tempting to simply shrug our shoulders and blame all of these obstacles when we don’t do the things that matter most to us, it would be misguided. Yes, our genetics, our schooling, our upbringing, our looks, and our society have all been found to impact our sense of confidence, but so have our own choices.

After interviewing leading researchers around the globe, best-selling authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman of The Confidence Code, concluded that confidence is within reach for women if we choose to practice:

* Being authentic. Confidence comes from playing to your distinctive strengths and values, whilst allowing for vulnerability when needed.  You can listen to others opinions, without apologizing for your own. You can ask for help, without undermining your own abilities. You can be focused, and still be approachable. You can interact with confidence and presence in any setting when you get comfortable with who you really are.

Thinking a little less. The female brain is wired to overthink things. If you’re a woman reading this then you’ve probably noticed a tendency to replay your mistakes, cling on to criticism, catastrophize about small challenges, and over prepare the simplest things. Ruminating drains the confidence from you, so it’s important to rewire this thinking pattern and know when it’s time to draw a red-line under negative thoughts and move on. Instead of running yourself down with stories about why you’re not good enough, try a little self-compassion and start talking to yourself like you would to a friend.

*  Regularly taking action. It seems nothing builds confidence like taking action, especially when the action involves risk and failure. Turning your thoughts into action means stepping outside your comfort zone, opening yourself up to learning, and discovering that sometimes failure provides your greatest lessons. Each time you choose to do one small, brave thing, the next time it gets a little easier and soon confidence begins to flow.

What neuroscientists call plasticity – your brain’s ability to change over time in response to new patterns of thinking and behaving – Katty and Claire call hope when it comes to improving your confidence.  You can test your levels of confidence at

This is part five of an exclusive 4 week series of edited extracts from the new book Lead Like A Woman: Your essential guide to true confidence, career clarity, vibrant wellbeing and leadership success by Megan Dalla-Camina and Michelle McQuaid. Lead Like A Woman is an enterprise co-founded by Megan and Michelle with a mission to empower women, transform leadership and create positive organizational change. To download your first two chapters for free, order your book, or to get a Women’s Agenda special $100 discount on the new online leadership and coaching program (enter code WomensAgenda at checkout), visit Next up in the series: Are you using your strengths at work?

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