Attuned Leadership for Women Podcast

Episode 003: Debunking the Confidence Myth


Listen to this 2-part series where I debunk the confidence myth in Episode 003 and then walk you through the exact steps to take to close the gap in Episode 004.

The confidence gap is a pervasive issue that affects women at all levels of leadership. It refers to the idea that women have more self-doubt about their careers, feel less prepared for promotions than men, and underestimate their abilities, even though their skills are equal. 

The traditionally held view is that this lack of confidence prevents women from reaching the top, as fear gets in the way.  However, recent research challenges the notion that women lack confidence, suggesting that women feel just as confident in their abilities and leadership skills as their male peers. Therefore, the confidence gap may be more of a myth than a reality. 

To level the playing field, a more accurate approach is needed, one that takes into account the double bind that women face, where they must simultaneously appear both confident and modest. Confidence is not equally rewarded for men and women in the professional world, and women can face consequences for showing too much confidence because it goes against binary gender norms. Therefore, it’s crucial to address the backlash effect and create a culture that rewards and encourages women to self-promote and take bigger risks.

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Prefer to Read? Here’s the transcript!

*Just a heads up – the provided transcript is likely to not be 100% accurate


We know that confidence is important and that it can impact a woman leader’s success and ability to influence. But what is confidence and does it really differ between men and women? If so, why and what can you do about it? 

We’re kicking off a two-show series to answer these big questions. Today I’m diving into the confidence myth and telling you everything you need to know, but here’s the twist. We’re challenging the notion that confidence is what you need to focus on. Get ready to discover a more accurate approach to leveling the playing field as I expose what’s really holding women back and how we as individuals and as a culture at large can solve it. 

Main Content: 

Hey there, welcome to episode three. I am really excited to share about the confidence myth because it affects women at all levels of leadership and the more awareness you have about it, the more you can free yourself from its impact. This is going to be a two-part series because I really want to give you time to digest this and make it yours. I hope that you can take what I’m sharing and engage with it. 

Think about how the confidence gap shows up for you and what you can take from this series to close it. Let me start by humbly saying that there’s no magic recipe or 10-step strategy for developing the confidence you need to reach your goals faster and easier. I always want to point out that many of the disparities you face won’t be solved at the personal level. We have to acknowledge that organizations need to shift values and do more to dissolve bias against women. The problem is systemic, as you’ll see with some of the stats that I’m going to share. My intention with Attuned  Leadership coaching with my clients and with you here on the podcast, however, is to teach you what can be done at the personal level because we aren’t waiting for the projected 175 years before gender equity is expected, right? I believe the way you express your confidence and your leadership style can speed up this process. 

Lastly, before we jump in, I want to say that I’m learning as much as I can to be gender inclusive, but I don’t claim to have it all figured out. If I use the terms female or woman, I’m not trying to exclude anyone. If you identified in the past or now as a woman, then most likely you’ve absorbed some harmful cultural gender norms. And that’s all I’m trying to call attention to. There’s an intersectionality to this that I want to highlight that depending on race, class, LGBTQ, and vulnerable identities may face greater systemic consequences of showing confidence and dominance. This show is my completely imperfect attempt at impacting how women across various identities experience bias and what we can do about it. So give me some grace if I don’t do it all exactly correctly. 

Now that we’ve laid that foundation, let’s start by getting you thinking about what confidence means to you. I’d like you to ask yourself these questions. What does confidence in leadership look like? How do you know it when you see it? What comes to mind in how someone talks and how they walk? What they say and how they say it? What does confidence in a woman look like? Do you have any woman role models that you admire specifically because of their confidence? Or do you usually admire them for other qualities? What does confidence in a man look like? And does it differ than the confidence that you already identified in a woman? How do confidence and confidence gaps show up for you in your life at work and at home? Do you think that having stronger confidence or expressing yourself differently would move you closer or faster to your goals? 

There’s no right or wrong answers to these questions. I just want to get you thinking and trying to apply everything I’m saying to your unique situation. We can explain any of the differences in your responses about confidence in men and women based on three things nature, nurture, and systemic bias. And we’re going to start by diving into the nurture part of how the confidence gap is created. See people shrug off little boys being physically aggressive, verbally loud, assertive, dominating, and taking dangerous risks like climbing high on a tree or competing for a spot on a sports team as boys being boys. 

But girls on the other hand are encouraged to be more emotionally aware, to pick up after themselves, and to be tidy, to play quietly with their dolls or do arts and crafts, and to be kind and polite instead of assertive. They’re taught that being pretty is important, which creates conflict for them about getting dirty and messing things up in their appearance and in grains that they need to prioritize how others perceive them more than what they can do. 

No wonder girls and boys grow up with differing levels of self-assurance. I recognize that a lot of what I’m saying is an oversimplification of gender but just stick with me for the conversation.

The more little boys project comfort with themselves and their abilities, the more they’re validated and rewarded. They are primed to be competitive from the very beginning, and they’re nearly experts at trial and error and become unfazed at failure by the time they’re 10 because they’ve experienced a lot of it. They’re resilient and persevering because they’ve been allowed to be.

On my street here in West Michigan, there’s a gaggle of boys the same age that I’ve watched growing up for a number of years as they learn to play soccer, lacrosse, basketball, and be very physically aggressive with each other. They take turns piling up on each other on the trampoline or stealing the ball from each other, all to claim the winning shot or the spot of dominance.

The girls on the street, however, are deterred from taking risks. Be careful, plays on repeat, from the adults, not just girls on my street, girls in general. They’re basically groomed to strive for perfection. That’s why I named the toxic cultural pressure that girls face to be perfect, good little girls that turn into good women, the perfection paradox.

With the perfection paradox, the target keeps moving for how you should look, talk, and spend your time and energy with every new role you take on in your life. You’re told that you can be anything you want to be and to dedicate yourself to your career as if you may not have a family and devote yourself to your family as if you don’t have a career. The double-binds women face feel infinite and complex. We could have a whole show just covering those. You simply can’t fulfill the standard of the perfection paradox. Yet women keep trying.

Girls tend to spend more energy calculating and preventing failure, and that delays their decision-making. If they experience mistakes, they spend more time dwelling on them and planning how to avoid them in the future. They take longer to get restarted after a setback. And all of these things I’m saying, by the way, are validated in gendered studies and research. But the most important to differentiate is that girls are more likely to internalize mistakes as being about them versus what boys do, attribute mistakes to external factors or luck.

This is where the term people-pleasing comes in, I think. Girls get validation from getting things right, being smart and being cute and pretty. My perspective is that because there’s so much pressure to fulfill external expectations, it’s harder for girls to know what they want because they’re weighing all possible outcomes. They develop a hypervigilance of noticing other people’s responses to them.

What I’ve just described explains why adult women are more likely, statistically than men, to struggle with overthinking, people-pleasing, and inability to let go of defeats, which are known as the three common confidence killers. There are also factors that can hold women back from appearing ready to take on more responsibility at work or from taking action as entrepreneurs. This is why we have the confidence gap theory.

Confidence is the faith in your ability to do well. The confidence gap is an idea that tries to explain why there are far fewer women than men in leadership positions. It was popularized in 2011 by Russ Harris that lack of confidence is what prevents women from reaching the top and that it happens because fear gets in the way.

Since then, lots of studies have shown that women have more self-doubt about their careers, feel they’re less ready for promotions than men, and underestimate their ability even though their abilities are equal. And these findings from these studies have led to some really shocking results where they’ve been correlated. Like this. Men initiate salary negotiations four times more than women do. And when women do negotiate, they ask for 30% less. What? That’s crazy, right? Not only do women start their careers at a financial disadvantage, but the gender gap appears to widen over the course of their careers, and the global pandemic has only made it worse.

Here’s another one. According to Hewlett Packard, they did an internal report where men applied for a job when they met only 60% of qualifications. So they’re reading a list of qualifications. They recognize that they really don’t fulfill them, yet they still applied with barely more than half of the expectations. While women statistically waited until they met 100% of the requirements, and the study has been reproduced. Now this shows how men tend to overestimate their abilities, while women underestimate theirs.

In a study by McKinsey and Company, which is one of the leading annual reports on gender findings in the workplace, they found that for every 100 men promoted to a managerial position, only 72 women were promoted. And that points to the discrepancy, they thought, in self-advocacy and the impact that has.

There’s even some high-profile top-ranking women that have openly shared how confidence hindered them in their career. Names you would recognize like Sheryl Sandberg and Reshma Sajjani. They’re two that come to mind.

Reshma has a book called Brave Not Perfect. What a title. She tells about her early career where she struggled with fear of failure and perfectionism. She got her self-worth, she said, from getting things right and being a high achiever. But after graduating from Harvard Law, she saw it was kind of holding her back. It wasn’t until she ran for a seat in the U.S. Congress in 2010 that she saw the power of bold moves that were outside of her comfort zone. And she attributes the difference for her in being the social support that allowed her to do that. When she didn’t believe in herself, others around her were reassuring. When she lost that election, she went on to found Girls Who Code because she saw the impact gender bias had on girls’ confidence to enter male-dominant tech industry and others. I love that she took the risk to be vulnerable and share her story of how overcoming her fear of failure and getting comfortable taking risks of failing has been the driver of her success. She was smart enough and capable enough to be one of the most influential women leaders of our time all along. But it didn’t happen until she believed it was possible and took action.

I can see in my own life how the confidence gap has been a barrier in various leadership positions. But my stance in attuned leadership is that some of the data explaining the confidence gap may be correlation and not prove causation. I have criticisms of the confidence gap theory. And through attuned leadership, we are going to take a different approach.

Generally, confidence isn’t something my family or friends would ever say I have lacked. I’m an introvert, but as a kid, I had talked to strangers, pitched myself for the talent show in fourth grade as an Elvis backup singer and dancer, and went on to be the editor of the school yearbook, a cheerleader, president of the key club, and even tried out to be a dancer in the opening ceremonies of the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta and succeeded. It was an epic experience. I’m also the first person on either side of my family to go away to college or get a doctoral degree.

Then in my health care career, I had two leadership positions. Both were with all male leadership, at least for part of the time. And in both of those positions, I felt scrutinized, micromanaged, and underpaid, not just for the work I produced, but for the emotional load I disproportionately carried. I faced real, yet invisible struggles, and I only wish I knew then what I know now about this stuff. I would have either excelled further, faster, or quit and started my own business much sooner, had I known.

I also don’t buy into the popular lean-in style of leadership advice for women that says to level the playing field that you have to show up with the confidence of a man. There’s some real big problems with that line of thinking. First of all, there’s a strong body of research showing that women actually do feel just as confident in their abilities and leadership skills as male peers. These studies suggest that the confidence gap may be more of a myth than it looks.

What if culturally we’ve mistaken the symptom of women’s apparent difficulty promoting themselves for the actual cause? Let me say that again. What if we’ve mistaken women’s lack of confidence as the reason we don’t have gender representation and pay equity, and if traditional leadership has been telling women the wrong way to solve the problem, one that may actually further cause them harm? Women are forced into a double bind where they must simultaneously appear both confident and modest. To say this in a different way, confidence is not equally rewarded for men and women in the professional world.

Studies have looked at many male-dominated fields and shown this to be true. Finance, tech, engineering, medicine—it’s across the board. It’s called the backlash effect. It’s something well-established, and it’s something women face that men really don’t. Women can face consequences for showing too much confidence because it goes against binary gender norms.

Research shows it’s actually the fear of this backlash—not a lack of confidence—that keeps women from self-promoting and taking bigger shots. Laura Gullen said something that sums this up beautifully. Wow, there’s a lot in that statement.

A perfect example of this, in my opinion, is Hillary Clinton and the outcome of her presidential campaign. She presented herself with great confidence because she was competent for the job and had more qualifying experience than her opponent who had no experience and no competence. She was calm and composed while her opponent was erratic and over-the-top competent. So what was it that cost her the election? I’ll tell you, it was likability. The way she displayed confidence was seen by some as bitchy, arrogant, and too dominant. She was seen as being too distant, as being above others. Basically, her confidence triggered implicit bias and was seen as a threat. Actually, her confidence was so threatening to the American people, they saw it as more dangerous than her opponent being unfit for the role.

I’m not really trying to dive into politics here. I don’t care who you voted for. This is just an objective example of gender norms on a large stage and the societal responses to it. Now, this may lead you to wonder, how can women influence others, which is a big part of salary negotiation and career advancement, if having the confidence to do so is seen as a threat or makes them seen as too much? Well, you need to be aware of the cultural waters you’re swimming in.

There’s a name for what Hillary Clinton and the rest of us face. It’s the Goldilocks Syndrome, which is the reality that women can be seen as too cold or too warm no matter what they do. They’re too cold when they clearly have the chops to lead, but are seen as needing to tone it down to be more accepted in the role or to advance. On the other hand, if they’re too warm, they’re seen as too likable, resulting in their achievements being overlooked and therefore aren’t seen as having what it takes to lead. They’re not seen as promotable.

And the reality is that as a woman, you have to master the art of appearing both sure of yourself and modest at the same time. The other invisible barrier women face that I want to point out here is that they’re typically seen as not being as competent as men, which is total BS.

I read somewhere that male competence is given until proven otherwise, and women’s competence has to be proven before it’s given. As a woman, you have to display competence and traditional feminine gender norms of friendliness, warmth, empathy, and communality, or the ability to motivate other people in order to be able to influence. Starting with just confidence as a woman will get you nowhere. For men, there’s no baseline requirement to be able to influence, show up, display confidence, and you’re golden. Oh, I know. It’s so frustrating.

Can you recognize any of these scenarios in your past or current experiences, especially if you’re in a corporate or traditional employment situation? But even if you’re not and you own a business or you’re an entrepreneur, how does this show up in your work? And how does it show up in your personal life and romantic relationships? This is all so eye-opening, right?

So far, I’ve walked you through some pretty shocking statistics showing the disparity women face and explain why some people believe that if women adopted a masculine style of confidence, those challenges would end. And I hope you understand why that message is a myth. Hence the name of this episode, the confidence myth. Women need and deserve a more accurate approach that actually results in leveling the playing field.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with power posing and speaking up, but I want you to filter out messages about the confidence gap or anyone that says that the answer is as simple as leaning in because navigating the invisible challenges you face is much more sophisticated than that. Although I do believe there are solutions.

In the next episode, I’m going to teach you some of the strategies from Attuned Leadership to counter those barriers. They include ways of managing yourself on the personal level and how to improve the larger perspective of things at your organization or in your business. I’m really excited to walk you through these practical action steps. I hope you come back and listen to the second part of the series for episode four.

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I care about you, your lived experience, and I’m dedicated to helping you overcome the invisible barriers you face so you can have success without sacrificing sustainability or satisfaction until next time.