Is It True That Women Lack Confidence?
There’s a long-standing narrative that women don’t put themselves forward and lack confidence when compared to men. Remedies aimed at fixing this perceived self-confidence deficit, and advice to be more daring, have not been effective. These interventions haven’t worked because the issue is more complex and nuanced than either can address.
This article is the first in a series about those nuances.
Danielle (not her real name) is a successful lawyer who has had an impressive career. When I met her she was at a crossroads, not enjoying work, and uncertain of what to do next. After working with her for a while I suggested she take a break to reflect on her own needs rather than focus on how to meet the requirements of her various career options.
Below is her reply to a message I sent to check on her progress.
‘I’m taking things a bit easy and processing what we talked about, thinking about what’s really right for me, and not putting energy into things that aren’t.’
I’ve given mentees and clients this advice hundreds of times, but on this occasion her words struck me in a new light.
What else would one do but what is right for you?
What isn’t right for you?
Research Says Women Do Just That
The female tendency to put the needs of others ahead of their own is more than a stereotype, it’s supported by research.
In a study by the US National Women’s Health Resource Center a staggering 78% of women reported prioritising their health 5th after other family members. Shockingly, the family pet ranked 2nd in the order of priority – 3 places ahead of the women’s own health.
Prioritising others ahead of self isn’t restricted to health. Women also sacrifice their happiness. Studies into guilt, shame and happiness, have found that females prioritise doing the ‘right thing’ over being happy.
When it comes to their wellbeing, women not only focus on doing the right thing by others; they do so at the expense of themselves.
But it doesn’t end there.
Women Do The Right Thing At Work Too
The female predisposition to do the right thing also manifests in how women approach their work, chiefly because they derive their sense of intrinsic reward in different ways to men.
Competence versus Challenge
A New Zealand study found women are more likely to get satisfaction from being competent at something than men. Whereas men are more likely to enjoy something because it offers challenge.
It would be incorrect to assume that this means women shy away from challenges or difficult work. What the research showed was a tendency for women to get more intrinsic reward from overcoming challenge and gaining mastery. The inverse applied for men who enjoyed the challenge more than the mastery.
The Role of Values
Values are important to all humans. Being in a situation where your values are conflicted has been recognised as a contributor to increased levels of stress for both men and women. However, there are gender differences in the relative importance of values which impact how women respond to values conflict at work.
Women place greater emphasis on being congruent with their values, hence find values conflict more stressful than men. As a result, they are more likely prioritise their values over career progression or financial reward. For women, doing the right thing in the work context means doing the right thing according to their values.
In summary, gender differences mean women gain career satisfaction when they can attain a level of mastery in roles where the work environment is aligned with their values.
How These Differences Hold Women Back
The concepts of business and career success evolved during times when these arenas were almost exclusively male dominated. This historical context is still reflected in the standards applied in organisations and society today. For example, the well-known phenomenon of the double bind, where women are assessed as less confident or competent than male peers yet penalised for exhibiting traits such as assertiveness and confidence.
Women often experience inner conflict when they try to do the right thing in both their personal and professional lives because of the incompatible standards which apply to each domain. This is further compounded by the perception that the female orientation to achieve competence and values congruence indicates lack of drive.
These factors in combination can lead to a real or perceived self-confidence deficit which impedes women in their careers.
My Message To Women
We’re all trail blazers. Others before us may have broken new ground, but we’re still treading a rough-hewn trail.
I hope this article helps you understand the dynamics in and around you a little more. You mightn’t be able to change the status quo overnight, but you can change where you place your energy.
Understand your values and reflect upon them often; they’ll help you remain resilient and guide you in your life and career.
Finally, resist the temptation to put yourself last. Doing what’s right for you doesn’t mean only thinking of yourself. It means including yourself in the equation when evaluating your priorities.
About the Author
Jacqui Alder is an internationally experienced human resources executive, consultant, and coach, with over 30 years’ experience in global businesses. She has worked in Australia, Europe, and Asia across multiple industry sectors.
She is founder at Clarity Simplicity Success for Women, and author of a self-coaching journal for women of the same name. The purpose of this business is to empower women to define their own meaning of success.