Men and women both say that one of the top three barriers to women’s career progression is their lack of confidence and self-doubt.
It’s consistent across all sectors and something that provokes an interesting level of discomfort.
The range of responses this finding emits includes:
- Denial: ‘That’s rubbish. The women I know are bolshier than the men… And they couldn’t do this job if they weren’t confident.’
- Anger: ‘So, you’re blaming the women? That’s the equivalent of blaming the victim of domestic violence!’
- Relief: ‘Well, that’s their problem! Nothing I can do about that and I’m not to blame.’
- Defeat: ‘Well, there’s no hope! If women aren’t confident enough to do the job, we don’t want them there.’’
- Recognition and confusion: ‘I know it’s true, but I don’t know why it’s the case. And I don’t know what I can do about it.’
To me, the reasons women lack confidence are clear and completely consistent with the inevitable result of unconscious bias and sexism.
We live and work in a culture where women internalise consistent messages about their legitimacy value, ideas, intelligence, leadership, opportunities, role, looks…
There is no one person or gender to blame: those that grow up, are educated and work in Australia are subject to the influence of the Australian culture.
The messages come at us from our parents, friends, peers, teachers, family members and the media. They manifest in stereotypes that include:
- Girls must be nice, look good, not show off, fit in, play nicely…
- Women aren’t as good as men at … maths, economics, science, IT…
- Women are great at nurturing so make better nurses, teachers, social workers…
- Women are not authoritative/smart/capable/objective/etc enough to be leaders;
They’re powerful, impact us all, but our experience, awareness and responses will differ.
Once we step outside the cultural expectations for us, (the stereotypes), we question ourselves, our value and our contribution:
- ‘I really like economics, maths, IT, sport… [fill in the gap] but I fear that I’m not as good as the men around here.’
- ‘I’m not really good enough to be here and at any moment someone will notice I’m a fraud.’
To compensate we might:
- Over-prepare for meetings – in a bid to be really sure we present ourselves and material competently, without mistakes;
- Avoid speaking up or asking questions in case someone finds out we don’t know what we’re talking about;
- Set harsh standards for perfection for ourselves (and typically others);
- Speak in an overly confident way, hoping to fool ourselves or others into thinking we’re better than we feel;
- Don’t apply for promotions, or roles unless we are 100% sure we can do the job;
- Qualify our opinions or contribution with unnecessary words.
When we move closer to the she we want to be we stop ourselves and ask is it OK? Will we be rejected, dismissed, or trampled on?
Some women are very adept at presenting a persona that will minimise the risk of being ‘found out’. These include being seen to be:
- Overly confident: in an effort to exude credibility, authority and competence;
- Conforming and non-threatening: eager to comply with stereotypical expectations of the mother, daughter, or hand maiden who will put your comfort ahead of hers;
- Androgynous: someone who hides her femininity in drab clothes and neutral suits to deflect her difference;
- Tough: someone who is tough, direct and unsympathetic of anything that seems ‘soft’, ‘weak’ or maternal.
All are understandable responses to the cultural conditioning that’s lodged in our individual and collective unconscious that it’s not ok to be ourselves. All are symptoms of the confused expectations we have of ourselves and each other. All are subject to criticism – especially, it seems, by other women.
Unless we acknowledge the bias and recognise how we respond to it, we can’t fix it. But first we must notice what we’re doing.
And in the meantime, we can give ourselves and other women a break.