At our inaugural workshop last August we compiled “the top 10 list of concerns” for women in strata.


At the very top of that list was: “women are not confident to speak up”.


Confidence – what it means and where to get it – was a big topic in our workshop. As the Women in Strata steering committee continues its hard work behind the scenes building the foundations of this group, it is a topic we have been discussing with some fervour.


With rather serendipitous timing, this article by Leith Mitchell was published in an edition of Women’s Agenda last week (and originally appeared on Mitchell’s blog here.) In it, Mitchell records her view that the ‘confidence myth’ is just another gender bias, based on the assumption that “if only women would fix themselves, the barriers to leadership would dissolve”.


Mitchell goes on to describe a series of ‘bias interrupters”, relying on detailed data to bust the confidence myth. She says:-


  • “There is no empirical evidence that shows that women use ‘sorry’ or ‘just’ language more than men.” Instead, “The issue is that we listen much more closely to what women say, and are consequently far more critical.” 
  • “There is no empirical evidence that shows that women only apply [for leadership roles] when they are confident they have met 100% [of the criteria], whereas men apply when they think they can meet 60%”
  • “There is no empirical evidence that shows that women are not as confident as men…Confidence is altered by organisational culture.” It turns out women actually do believe in themselves, they just don’t believe that their company will support them. Mitchell refers to this survey which found that an organisation’s culture is more than twice as likely to impact women reaching leadership roles. She says: “Women don’t feel supported by management and they have a hard time fitting into stereotypes of success within the company.” 
  • “Women are twice as likely to believe that men are more confident, creating a circle of self doubt for women, reconfirmed by bias in the workplace.”


In short, Mitchell concludes: “Addressing structural, cultural, interpersonal and personal barriers in workplaces is critical to moving the status quo. Stereotypes and assumptions (unconscious bias) need to be called out in the workplace. Whenever you hear “women are like this, or men are like that” call it out. Ask for empirical evidence.”


I find this quite fascinating. Mitchell’s views and the research she cites fits snugly with much of the anecdotal evidence I have gathered as I speak to more and more women in strata. Those that feel stuck, or overlooked, or afraid, or “lacking in confidence” are the same women who seem to be in workplaces lacking diversity, flexibility, innovation and personal support. How sobering it is to think that we have bought into the myth that our ‘lack of confidence’ is our own fault (one of many faults we saddle ourselves with), and how liberating and exciting it is to have the data and tools we need to free ourselves of the burden.


The next time you are faced with a gender stereotype or bias, take Mitchell’s advice and call it out. Ask “why?”, “who says that?”, “where does it come from?” The answers (or lack thereof) might surprise and inform you. Maybe even instill some confidence.


It’s certainly a great place to start.

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