Stop Telling Women They’re Not Confident & Start Paying Attention

If I see one more article about how women’s lack of confidence is holding them back in the workplace, I might just lose my s#@%. What drives me crazy about this whole line of thinking is that it assumes certain behaviors exhibited by women in the workplace indicate a lack of confidence.

Do some women lack confidence? Sure. Is it holding them back? Certainly. Yet, I’d argue that many more women feel completely confident in their abilities but behave in a way that is misunderstood by mostly male leadership teams.

This quieter confidence may be, in some part, a learned behavior. Women get dinged for not being as confident (read: assertive) as their male colleagues, but those who are assertive often pay a high professional price. In The Atlantic’s much-discussed article titled, “The Confidence Gap,” the authors (ABC News reporter Claire Shipman and BBC World News America anchor Katty Kay) wrote:

“Yes, women suffer consequences for their lack of confidence — but when they do behave assertively, they may suffer a whole other set of consequences, ones that men don’t typically experience. Attitudes toward women are changing, and for the better, but a host of troubling research shows that they can still pay a heavier social and even professional penalty than men do for acting in a way that’s seen as aggressive. If a woman walks into her boss’s office with unsolicited opinions, speaks up first at meetings, or gives business advice above her pay grade, she risks being disliked or even — let’s be blunt — being labeled a bitch. The more a woman succeeds, the worse the vitriol seems to get. It’s not just her competence that’s called into question; it’s her very character.”

So, which behaviors are getting women labeled as the less-confident gender?

Listening vs. Talking
There are a number of reasons why women might not voice their ideas as loudly or as often as their male counterparts. It may be that they try and are talked over. Or, it could simply be that they’re listening before they formulate an opinion. Listening is a skill. It shouldn’t be considered a liability. Preconceptions about what confidence looks like are dangerous, because women are still severely underrepresented in what most of us consider leadership roles. If most of our leaders are men, then what we recognize as confidence may be how male confidence tends to manifest.

In a 2014 interview, Facebook COO and “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg said: “A lot of the character traits that you must exhibit to perform at work, to get results, to lead are ones that we think, in a man, he’s a boss, and in a woman, she’s bossy. And, the good news about this is that we can change this by acknowledging it.”

I’d take this a step further and say we should also acknowledge that there are many ways to lead and we don’t all need to fit the same mold. However, we also need current leaders to set aside some of their unconscious bias that confidence can’t be quiet and unassertive.

Caution vs. Risk-Taking
Being cautious does not necessarily demonstrate a lack of confidence. It may, in fact, demonstrate a thoughtful, measured approach that just happens to contradict a riskier proposal. Contradicting your manager or a group of co-workers actually demonstrates quite a bit of confidence. Sometimes taking a risk is warranted, but risk for risk’s sake is just bad business.

“Women often struggle with a male-dominated culture at executive levels, surveys show,” according to a recent article from the Associated Press. “Some have accused such a culture for the aggressive risk-taking that led to the global financial crisis. IMF chief Christine Lagarde quipped that if collapsed investment bank Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, the crisis would look different.”

I know plenty of women who love parachuting out of airplanes or have jumped wholeheartedly into the uncertain path of entrepreneurship. I don’t believe that taking risks is always divided along gender lines, but there are studies that show men tend to have a higher tolerance for risk. There are also studies that show a cautious approach can pay off in the long run. There’s a time for taking risks and a time for approaching a situation with caution, and we need a good mix of perspectives in the workplace to sustain successful businesses.

Humility vs. Self-Promotion
Have you ever heard of Dame Stephanie Shirley? Neither had I until I recently watched her incredible TED talk. She founded an all-woman software company in the early 1960s which was ultimately valued at $3 billion. She would often use the name “Steve” as an alias to land business so that stereotypes about women’s technical and business acumen wouldn’t keep clients from considering her company as a contender. She quietly (and confidently) built a successful business tapping into a female talent pool that was being overlooked and allowing her employees to work from home and have more flexibility in their schedules.

Something Shirley said in her TED talk really stuck out, “I believe in the beauty of work when we do it properly and with humility.”

According to an article in Time magazine titled, “Humility: A Quiet, Underappreciated Strength,” the American workplace culture tends to value self-promotion and assumes that those who don’t engage in it are, for the most part, less confident and less competent. The exception to that perception? Older, white men.

“One recent study, which surveyed CEOs and middle managers across a range of areas, from the military to health care, found that humility was a highly important component of effective leadership. However, displaying humility was a double-edged sword for anyone who wasn’t an older white man. When youth, women or minorities humbly admitted errors or gave credit to others, their competence was called into question. White men, in contrast, were rewarded for owning up and praising the efforts of underlings.”

What could be achieved for women in workplace culture if we stopped asking women to wear their confidence “like a man?” The truth is that we, as a society, are being lazy. It’s harder to recognize quiet confidence, so the easy thing is to ask everyone to show their confidence in ways that are overt, assuming those who don’t must lack it. Ironically, we don’t actually want women to act like men in the workplace. When they do, both men and women punish them for it. We can’t have it both ways.


Originally published on on April 2, 2015: Shared with permission.

Share This: