Closing the confidence gap

Lisa Day and her mentor on the PRWeek Mentoring Project, Christine Johnson, discuss how women in comms can let lack of confidence hold them back.

Christine Johnson (below): In all our conversations over the past few months, we keep coming back to the same overarching theme – the issue of confidence. Why is it, do you think, that women – even in quite senior positions of responsibility – are held back by what seems to be this lack of (or perceived lack of) confidence, even if it’s not always obvious?
 
Lisa Day (above): We do keep coming back to confidence. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if it goes beyond this; is it only a confidence issue, or is it also about our sense of self-value?
 
How convinced are we of our own ability, and why do some (many?) of us let doubt creep in from time-to-time? Some of this is part and parcel of the leadership journey regardless of gender – the more we experience and the more ambiguity we successfully work through, the more skill, muscle memory and confidence we build. But are men more confident and do they have a greater sense of self-belief at every career point compared with women?
 
(CJ): The so called ‘shortage’ of female confidence is quite well documented. In 2011, the Institute of Leadership and Management asked British managers about how confident they feel in their professions.

Half the female respondents reported self-doubt about their job performance and careers, compared with fewer than a third of male respondents. In a number of UK and US studies, men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both – yet their performances do not differ in quality.
 
Of course men also doubt themselves, a lack of confidence is not solely a woman’s terrain, but, more often than not, men just don’t let these doubts deter them.
 
(LD): It’s interesting to think about the reasons behind this. Some point to the role of gender stereotypes and the effect these have on how we act and perform. Let’s take the recent Always ‘Like a Girl' campaign. I've never really thought about how a phrase could affect my behaviour – but just look at the striking differences in perceptions between girls of different ages in the ad. And then there's the Ban Bossy campaign from LeanIn.org and the Girl Scouts.
 
Even in the face of gendered perceptions, how do we as professional women instil a greater sense of confidence and self-value? Perhaps we need to start by holding a mirror up and taking time to reflect on how we view ourselves. And then we need to see how this compares to the way we’re perceived by others. One way to find out is to ask (which isn’t a comfortable thing to do for everyone, admittedly, but it's probably worthwhile). What do our colleagues and senior leaders think when they’re listening to us in a meeting or watching us give a presentation? Do they see someone who is able and confident? Does that match how we’re feeling? 

 
(CJ): Clearly there are cultural, psychological and even pysiological factors at play, but differing levels of estrogen and testosterone are no excuse. Nurture and gender stereotyping have a lot to answer for in developing expected behaviours – as demonstrated in the Always advert. As a result same behaviours can be given a negative or positive label depending on the gender of the person enacting them – a women speaking up for herself in a meeting is labelled as being aggressive but a man doing the same thing is applauded for being assertive.
 
But you’re right – to a large extent, the answer lies with ourselves.  I read once that the natural result of low confidence is inaction. If we hesitate because we’re not sure, we hold ourselves back. We need to find a way of not being afraid to stand our ground and take responsibility for trying to close that confidence gap.

Lisa Day is head of communications strategy, resources and projects, Diabetes UK

Christine Johnson is partner - corporate and brand, Bell Pottinger

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