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There is a decided confidence barrier at the workplace – a woman is less likely believe in herself and speak up about her ideas. What can be done to change this?
Women are less likely to speak up at work, or to apply for jobs they don’t feel confident about. They are also more likely to be considered pushy if they do, as opposed to men being considered confident. This is a real problem at the workplace for many women.
I have often been told, that I underestimate myself. When I was a research scientist, this was a big hurdle. In group meetings the guys would enthusiastically propose ideas and run with them. Most of the time they would hit a brick wall, but that did not stop them from bouncing back with a new idea a few seconds later. I and the other girl in the group (we were theoretical physicists, so not many women in a group), on the other hand, tended not to propose ideas unless we had worked out some preliminaries. So it appeared we had fewer ideas and less to contribute.
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Later I found out that this is indeed a common problem among women. According to this article, women commonly underestimate themselves, and men commonly overestimate themselves. For example, on an average men will apply for a job if they believe they meet 60% of the job requirements, while women will apply only if they believe they meet 100% of the job requirements.
In meetings and strategy sessions, the person talking most confidently dominates the group, even if they have relatively less substance to offer. The person offering ideas, even ones that don’t pan out, or even are downright silly, appear to be capable of thinking on their feet and creative. They manage to awe and overwhelm the rest with their attitude, and people look up to them.
So if men typically, tend to be more confident than women who are equally or more competent and qualified, then women are at a disadvantage.
As I see it, there are 3 approaches that can work in tandem at different levels to address the problem.
A feminist movement should first of all be introspective. We must know our weaknesses and work on them. We may not be able to control what society, or even our families do, but we can control what we do.
Statistically, it has been shown that women are more reluctant than men to present their ideas and make themselves heard. Let us make an effort to put ourselves out there, and overcome our fear of being judged, because if we don’t, we rob ourselves of opportunities, that might never come again.
I remember writing my statement of research when I was applying for a postdoc in physics. I was reluctant to mention anything that seemed only vaguely plausible for me to accomplish. I did not want to be dishonest and give the impression I could do a lot more than I really could. My advisor reminded me that a statement of research is not to state what you know you can do, but to envision what might be possible and how far your imagination can take you within the laws of physics.
Extrapolating this experience to the workplace, it can be said that even if you have an idea that might have possibilities, even if they seem difficult to execute, put your idea out there. It could well be the next big one.
Learning is a part of the job. So you can pick up new tools and skills along the way to make those vague ideas more concrete.
It is important to play by the rules of the game instead of setting yourself higher moral standards of honesty. Applying for a job or promotion that you feel slightly under qualified for is not unethical. Leave it to those hiring to decide if you are indeed qualified.
One reason women are under-confident is because of the legacy of gender bias and it’s persistence in subtle forms. Male dominated professions have more glamour attached to them than women dominated ones. Things women commonly excel at, are often considered less important. Also women trying to break in to these male dominated professions are often made to feel intimidated. Aggressive women are seen as bitchy and controlling, while aggressive men are considered bold and strong leaders.
Even today phrases like “You throw like a girl”, implying girls throw badly, or “I made him/her cry like a little girl” implying girls are weak, persist. Such language carelessly used, undermines a girl’s confidence from an early age.
Family members and friends can make a conscious effort not to use gender biased language, even casually or jokingly, to help raise confident girls.
Society needs to change it’s male dominated outlook. Statistically, men and women may have different strengths and weaknesses. Every trait has advantages and disadvantages. But a male dominated society tends to place a higher value on those traits that are more common among men, than those that are more common among women.Women who do speak up are also seen as more pushy than men who do the same.
It is possible that women are naturally less confident than men. But on the other hand, they present a more reliable and realistic picture of themselves. Their claims and proposals are more likely to work, even if they are less ambitious. So when hiring and promoting, even if women have less exciting resumes and proposals, it is likely they are also more realistic.
Why would a workplace not value such reliability and even attach glamour to it? Being able to deliver on your promises must be valued, encouraged and praised, along with bold ideas. An employee must be assessed on not just their confidence and ability to dominate group meetings, but also their efficiency, reliability, productivity, effectiveness, feasibility and follow through of proposed ideas, when being considered for promotions.
The confidence barrier is a difficult one to overcome. The 3 pronged approach at different levels, is necessary to help make women more productive members of society. When women do not come forward with their ideas out of fear of being judged, or being considered pushy, they cheat themselves of great achievements and society is deprived of their contributions.
Statistically, women have a lot to offer. In fact, according to some studies, female dominated jobs are much harder to automate (carried out by robots and automatons) than male dominated jobs. So women need to believe in themselves and their and abilities and play to their strengths. They should not avoid speaking up in fear of judgment and mockery. And families and society need to do their bit to encourage women too.
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Image source: businesswoman addressing a meeting by Shutterstock.
Kanika G, a physicist by training and a mother of 2 girls, started writing to
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