It’s impossible to look at social media or open a magazine these days without reading about a well-known, accomplished woman – the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Venus Williams, Michelle Obama and Tina Fey – who hasn’t struggled at some point with lack of confidence.
Claire Shipman, the opening keynote speaker at the Forté Foundation’s 2017 MBA Women’s Leadership Conference in Seattle and New York Times bestselling author of The Confidence Code – shared an example of her own bouts with insecurity. A former broadcast news journalist, Shipman once sent an email to Diane Sawyer asking for some feedback. As hours and days passed with no word from Sawyer, Shipman started to concoct an array of reasons why Sawyer had not responded – all blaming Shipman’s abilities and none of which were true.
If women at the top of their fields doubt their rock star status, what hope is there for the rest of us?
I got some answers when Shipman addressed women’s workplace struggles with everything from “manterrupting” – when men speak over women – to why smart women are passed over for leadership positions given to men of less competence. Based on extensive research and conversations with women across the career spectrum, Shipman offered her take on the reason for this inequity and what to do about it.
THE NOT-SO-GOOD NEWS: CONFIDENCE TRUMPS COMPETENCE
It wouldn’t be an MBA conference without data, and Shipman cited studies that reveal companies with more women leaders perform better. As Shipman said, “A diverse company always makes better decisions,” but getting more women to the top is no easy feat because “women routinely underestimate themselves.” It is not surprising then that women apply for leadership positions less often than men – even when they are more qualified than men for those roles – and, on average, 30 percent of men routinely overestimate their abilities.
Lack of confidence has considerable repercussions. Shipman shared a finding from Cameron Anderson, a UC Berkeley professor: “In most cases, in terms of traditional success, competence trumps confidence.” Shipman said that Anderson had studied his students and determined that “overconfident students get their ideas listened to more regularly, are thought of as leaders and are more respected by people in their study groups.” Those overflowing with confidence also snag top spots at companies – regardless of their capabilities – because they believe they have more talent than they do.
The key take-away for Shipman was that “confidence and competence should align, and maybe even tilt slightly to overconfidence, because that causes you to act and take risks.”
BORN THIS WAY?
Maybe you think you weren’t born confident so it’s fruitless to try to change. It is true that in 25-50 percent of cases, confidence is a genetic trait. The differences between men’s and women’s brains mean they innately view risk differently. Women can tend to spend more time ruminating, which may lead to inaction, while men are often inherently are more prone to taking risks.
Shipman notes, however, there is more than genetics at play.
A woman’s confidence level drops when she enters the workforce. Girls excel in school and are rewarded when they follow rules, and are polite and quiet. Boys, on the other hand, are typically more boisterous and find it difficult to reign in their disruptive tendencies. Unlike girls, boys learn “it is ok to fail,” Shipman says, adding that one solution is “to teach girls to fail, struggle and not be perfect.”
As the examples of Oprah Winfrey and others prove – a lack of self-assurance doesn’t magically disappear once a woman has reached her career pinnacle. Many women compensate for their lack of confidence by becoming perfectionists and placing undue pressure on themselves.
The good news is that anyone can develop confidence through behavioral changes or, as Shipman says, “habituating ourselves to risk.”
THE GOOD NEWS: BY DOING MORE, YOU BUILD A STOCKPILE OF CONFIDENCE
So, how exactly can women habituate themselves to take more risks and develop the confidence to become leaders? It is helpful to understand what “confidence” really means – Shipman defines it as “what turns our thoughts into action.” Acquiring more of this elusive, career pixie dust is what she describes as a “virtuous circle” – by taking action and risks, confidence will follow. “By doing more, you build a stockpile of confidence,” Shipman said.
Shipman recommends daring to embrace failure and risk. “Get out of your comfort zones, try things you are not good at, take the difficult assignments. You have to find ways to test the waters,” she said.
Shipman also encouraged women to silence their inner critics – the nagging internal voice that tells you untruths and weakens your confidence. Using her own story about waiting for Diane Sawyer to respond to her email as an example, Shipman recommends becoming “a public defender in your brain for yourself” because believing alternative perspectives will “force you to re-circuit your brain patterns.”
In addition to doing more and thinking less, Shipman said that “authenticity is critical for confidence.” Some women think they have to change themselves and their natural styles to become more confident as leaders, but Shipman believes “it’s about pushing yourself, taking risks, acting, and not missing opportunities.” The special traits that “women bring to the table have to be encouraged,” she said. For example, women’s collaborative, problem-solving and interpersonal skills have to be valued over common traits among men in the workplace – such as “manterrupting.”
So, ladies – while many of us have work to do to achieve more self-confidence, pushing out of our comfort zones will launch us into the career stratosphere where we belong.