“Sit at the table”. “Lean in.” “Stand up. Speak up. Be heard.” There’s no shortage of empowering messaging promising women the secrets to success in male dominated workplaces and industries.
And all of it essentially implores the same action plan. Be More Confident. Push aside the self-doubt, and emulate those self-assured blokes you work with who don’t waste a second worrying about whether or not they’re good enough. And if you’re not feeling it, then fake it ‘til you make it.
But is this barrage of well-meaning advice really helping, or is it simply fueling an outdated stereotype? One that suggests low-confidence is, quite simply, just part of the curse of being a woman. That imposter syndrome and self-doubt are universal traits we all share and deal with, together.
Modern psychology practitioner and leadership strategist Tamsin Simounds argues we’re focusing too heavily on it, to our own detriment. Referencing a KPMG study of 3000 professional Australian women, in which 56 per cent – more than half – were “cautious” about accepting leadership roles and cited “confidence building” as a desired training and development skill, she says obsessing over our ability can lead to two things. And neither of them are good.
“One – we don’t take up opportunities and therefore never realise our full potential,” she says. “Or two – we do take up the opportunities… but spend the entire time suffering imposter syndrome, waiting for someone to tap us on the shoulder and tell us we’re actually not cut out for the job.”
And here lies the real crux of the problem. What we dwell on, only grows. So simply urging women to “believe in themselves” can in fact create a vicious cycle that further destroys the confidence of women who already doubt themselves.
“For someone who is already struggling with confidence, telling them to ‘be more confident’ reinforces the fact they aren’t, and actually has the opposite effect, making them even less confident,” she says. “The little girl who is told she is confident will get more confident; the girl who is told she isn’t, will continue to play that out.”
So suddenly we’re even more focused on our belief that we lack confidence, and for the majority of driven, goal-oriented women, the determination to overcome what we see as a weakness becomes one more task to add to the growing list of things we need to “fix” about ourselves.
“When women come to work with me, they’re often trying to ‘fix’ themselves and the first thing I do is let them know that’s not required,” Simounds says. “It’s like they’re hoping for an injection of this ‘confidence gene’ but it doesn’t exist. Confidence isn’t a stable trait that someone has or doesn’t have.”
This “fixing” ideology has many experts, including women and workplace commentator Catherine Fox, fuming. In her book Stop Fixing Women, she blames gender expectations and over-simplified explanations and solutions, even going as far as to say women-only confidence-building workshops are a “hindrance that embeds rather than confronts stereotypes”.
“If the majority of our thoughts are focused on our weaknesses, the self-doubt kicks in. If we train our minds to focus on our strengths, we naturally get an immediate feeling of confidence.”
“There are parts of the ‘fixing women’ approach that drive me nuts”, she writes. “Telling women to lower their voices, drop the qualifiers from their language and stop apologising are some of the most irritating and debilitating going around”. And, she argues, only exacerbates the problem. “Start telling women to constantly police their speech because it’s not good enough and you start messing with their heads and their sense of self,” she writes. “That’s not a good platform for building confidence in themselves, either.”
Especially if it’s not even needed. Co-founder of Future Women Academy and Diversity Partners Dr Katie Spearritt isn’t convinced women are as unsure of themselves as much of the well-meaning messaging would have you believe.
“A lot of recent global research shows women see themselves just as capable as men of succeeding in professional roles,” she says. “I really wince each time I hear speakers at leadership conferences promoting ways to help women become more confident, to assert themselves more at work, as though women somehow need ‘fixing’.” Spearritt is tired of the “DIY school of thought”, popular in the 1960s, in which the emphasis on getting women into leadership focused only on women, and what they needed to change about themselves to make it happen, not the broken system.
“Back then, and still today, it gives women false hope,” she says. “That somehow asking for a raise or putting yourself forward for a promotion will achieve greater equality.” Spearritt says history shows us that is not the case. “Nor does it address the reality that women are actually more likely to be penalized for showing assertiveness at work, because of the implicit gender bias associating women with warmth rather than competence and assertiveness.”
Falsifying ballsiness to match it with men not only makes us more obsessive over our real confidence levels. It can also backfire and earn us labels like “self-serving”, “narcissistic” and “heartless”. And according to Simounds, even if faking assertiveness works in the short term for some women, most can only keep the game up for so long before it affects their ability to lead. “If we’re trying to be someone we’re not, it’s hard to build meaningful relationships with people,” she says. “If we’ve got a wall up, it’s hard for others to let theirs down. The best thing we can offer others, is our authentic selves.”
And that takes real confidence. The good news, according to Simounds, this is something that can be cultivated in the right environment. It starts with stopping the “fix it” list. “If we’re trying to fix ourselves by continuing to add layers and layers on the wall that we’re putting up to protect ourselves from being seen, and potentially rejected, as the person that we actually are, then we’re preventing ourselves from living the aligned, fulfilling lives that allow us to really make our mark,” she says. “Many of us haven’t taken the time to get clear on what we already have and do well, and how we really want to be living and leading, and because of this we keep searching for the next thing to improve.”
So, ditch the “to fix” list, for an “already nailing” list. Write your strengths, skills, talents, experiences and wins. Keep it somewhere you’ll see it daily, and watch your confidence slowly build. “Our minds are on a default setting that make us more likely to focus on the negative than the positive,” Simounds says. “If the majority of our thoughts are focused on our weaknesses, the self-doubt kicks in. If we train our minds to focus on our strengths, we naturally get an immediate feeling of confidence.”
We can teach our brain to create new neurological pathways by repeating and reinforcing thoughts that are self-constructive instead of self-destructive (eg. I’ve totally got this, I’m good at this, I’ve done this before) until those thoughts are so deeply imbedded that we believe them as fact. Jedi training, if you will.
Our brain also grows by trying new things, even if they scare us. And there’s no better deposit in the confidence bank than that rush of self-satisfaction that comes after achieving the feat you were worried about. The key is to understand it’s ok to feel scared, instead of hating on yourself for thinking you’re being weak, while you pretend you’re not.
There is one final trick. Confidence comes naturally when we’re really clear on why we’re doing what we’re doing, according to Simounds. “You don’t need next-level confidence to do something you truly believe in,” she says. The answer? Spend less time scouring Instagram for inspirational quotes and self-help books for silver bullet solutions and put that time instead into working out what you’re already really good at, what you want to try next and why you’re doing it in the first place. And stop trying to “fix” yourself. You’re not broken.
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