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Why Indian Women Lack Confidence

Posted: January 3, 2012

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What causes low confidence in Indian women? We examine the causes of low self esteem in women and get tips from experts on how to boost your confidence.

By Jaya Narayan

India ranks 113 out of 134 countries in gender parity according to the World Economic Forum’s recent Global Gender Gap Index. This metrics is an indication of access to education and opportunities for Indian women compared to their counterparts in the rest of the world. Sairee Chahal, Co-founder, Fleximoms, shares, “Women not speaking up in family matters, not owning property or financial assets, not taking decisions related to relationships, careers, family and children add to the perception of lack of confidence”.

Priya Chetty Rajagopal, Vice President and Partner, Stanton Chase points out, “Education, exposure, mentoring, family support, organizational context and being an optimist are some factors that determine the level of confidence in people. In a similar cross section of urban and educated professionals, the confidence levels across gender are close, but bring up a crisis, and you see the great divide”.

Low confidence in Indian women: Why?

Gender stereotypes are deeply ingrained and deep-rooted. Most Indian parents even today expect boys to be successful in the material world (‘taking the family name forward’) and girls to ‘dutifully’ meet role expectations of being a good daughter, the perfect wife, giving mother and sincere team member. As an outcome, Indian women tend to seek approval from significant people in their lives and suffer from self-induced guilt on claiming their space. Only a few women network, experiment with new behaviours, proactively seek opportunities and negotiate salaries all of which are associated with being confident.

Indian women tend to seek approval from significant people in their lives and suffer from self-induced guilt on claiming their space.

I conducted a small ‘Confidence Survey’ among 15 urban, educated Indian women, in the group of 25 – 40 years which included home-makers and working professionals, to get a clearer picture on this subject. According to this survey, the 3 main triggers affecting self-confidence are:

Unfavourable body image

It is all about how we feel about the way we look. Being constantly bombarded with the ‘perfect’ body image, triggers aspirations of ‘perfect’ (read fair) skin colour, ‘perfect’ figure (read size zero/hour-glass) and the works. According to the respondents of the confidence survey, “Being in the company of beautiful girls with perfect figures, being part of a group with no one giving me a second look, a pimple outburst or gaining weight” makes them feel rejected, impacting overall confidence levels.

Not living up to expectations

We have grown up with stories of Sita and Savitri, that applaud the self–sacrifice made by women for the greater good of others. A recent research study published by AC Nielsen, titled ‘Women of Tomorrow’, reports that women in India (87%) are most stressed/pressured for time. Our confidence survey validates that working mothers constantly feel a tug of war. “There is a dip in my confidence when the support system I require fails resulting in my inability to keep personal commitments and professional expectations to the best of my ability”, shared one woman who participated in the survey.


Sairee says, “A feeling of loss of control or chaos overtaking order may lead to a temporary dip”. This is described by women who have participated in the confidence survey as a time, “When things don’t go my way, when I am not able to find solutions or when I have certain expectations from myself and believe that I have not lived up to it”. Women have a propensity to internalize these situations and attribute it to their inability, lack of skills or something that they could have done better in the context.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in a TED talk states that there is a pattern amongst women to constantly underestimate themselves and their abilities. Is there a rainbow in sight? In Sairee’s experience, “Women have a quiet understated resilience which can be the big differentiator.” She adds, “After all in the long term, confidence stems from inner strength, long term goals, personal values and external support structure.”

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in a TED talk states that there is a pattern amongst women to constantly underestimate themselves and their abilities. Is there a rainbow in sight?

Building confidence and self-esteem in women

Here are some tips on what you can do to feel more confident, irrespective of the circumstances. Sairee states, “Confidence is not only a mind game but also a state where the heart feels at peace – even if in the midst of chaos.”

Discover your passion

The simplest way is to find the one thing you love doing and investing time and energy in it. For one of the respondents, “For me, community service is my way to contribute to a bigger cause which makes me feel good and more capable”. For another, “Working full time has helped me in gaining an identity and financial independence which makes me feel good about myself”.

Invest in the “Me” Factor

In keeping with the demands of the various roles that women perform, stress inherently gets built-up impacting our sense of well-being. A respondent said, “Being a stay at home mother, though I am busier than what I would have been if I had worked, I hardly get time for myself”. It is essential to indulge in things that give you little pleasures. Working out, finding a hobby, the occasional pampering and spending ‘me’ time with friends could be some simple ways to experience well-being.

“Can do” attitude

It is very important to celebrate past successes. One respondent said, “When I am faced with a new situation, I reflect on similar problems that I have dealt with in the past and take some of those learnings forward”. It’s essential for women to be on a continuous learning curve, find a mentor who can act as a sounding board, have women role models who inspire us to be successful despite all odds. All these would help strengthen the ‘I can do anything mindset’ to deal with new / ambiguous or difficult situations with panache.

I would like to end with a quote from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love; “You are, after all, what you think. Your emotions are the slaves to your thoughts, and you are the slave to your emotions.” Expanding our personal boundaries and breaking gender stereotypes can surely enable us to be examples of positivity and confidence.

*Photo credit: spock1

Jaya Narayan is a alumnus of TISS, Mumbai and has over 15 years of experience

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