Why are women sissies at work? Seriously. Women in their 50s and 60s, including myself at times, are less likely than men to step up and say “I can do this” when an assignment out of our comfort zone comes along.
This lack of confidence — not competence — keeps women from getting ahead and getting paid fairly, according to Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, co-authors of The Confidence Code: The Science And Art of Self-Assurance –What Women Should Know. Kay is the Washington anchor for BBC World News America; Shipman is a correspondent for ABC News and Good Morning America.
Giving Others Too Much Credit
Even when women do knock the skin off the ball and succeed on the job, the authors say, we’re more likely than men to demur and credit others or luck rather than taking ownership of the accomplishment.
To learn more about why women are woefully behind in the confidence department and what we can do about it, I just interviewed Kay; I’ll get to our conversation in a minute and then mention two of my favorite tips from the book.
The ‘Lean In’ Snowball
Confidence-building is the new rage in the women’s self-help movement, perhaps spurred by the last year’s blockbuster Lean In by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.
This summer, the University of Pennsylvania will offer a $12,500 week-long course, Women’s Executive Leadership: Business Strategies for Success, where “two pillars of the program are clarity and confidence,” according to its materials.
(MORE: What Works for Women at Work Today)
A Challenge for Facebook’s Sandberg
Buzziness aside, the evidence is clear, compelling and data driven in The Confidence Code. One of the book’s surprising points: regardless of how far women have climbed in our careers, we often seem to think we’re one step away from being exposed for our weaknesses or aren’t good enough.
When the authors interviewed Sandberg, she told them: “There are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.”
Imagine that. “Likewise the two of us spent years attributing our success to luck, or, like Blanche Dubois, to the kindness of strangers,” Kay and Shipman write. “And we weren’t being deliberately self-deprecating — we actually believed it.”
(MORE: 3 Ways Women Can Get Paid More at Work)
Highlights from my confidence chat with Kay:
Next Avenue: Is it possible to get more confident even late in life?
Kay: Yes, but you have to act.
Although there are people who are naturally born more confident than others, there is also what psychologists call a much larger component — it’s your choice.
Clearly, Claire and I, who are both confident women, have made choices that have expanded our confidence.
The really exciting bit of neurology, the cutting edge neurological research, is something called brain plasticity. This is the idea that our brains are malleable. And now what neurologists are finding is that they are malleable much later than life than we used to think. So even at my advanced age of 49, and into your 50s and 60s, you can change your brain with the choices you make.
Scientists call this plasticity. We call it hope.
How can women break the negative pattern of perceived failings?
We can make our brains more open to confidence. That’s really exciting, particularly for boomer women, like myself.
Reframing is one of the most important things for confidence. Women, much more than men, tend to carry around with them the tiniest criticisms or the smallest thing they did wrong or the tiniest perceived slight. If we could only let some of those criticisms roll off our backs a little bit more, we could draw a red line and move on.
We take criticism so much to heart, making what I call these ‘negative automatic thoughts.’ And that stops you from taking risks.
Yet failing and risking and going outside your comfort zone are all parts of building confidence. We can't get confident unless we are prepared to risk and fail and it is hard to do that when we take failure so personally.
You think women need to stop being perfectionists. Why?
Women are 25 percent more prone to perfectionism than men — we are in our work, in our family life as wives, even in our yoga classes. We want to get it just right.
But perfectionism is a real barrier to being prepared to risk and fail. It is an impossible standard.
So how should women get themselves to act more confident?
Go to the thing that is just a little bit hard, the unknown thing, the thing you have always found a little bit scary. Go for that job you always found a little bit difficult, run for PTA president, go to a party by yourself, stand up in speak in public when you haven't done it before.
That is how you grow your confidence. Not by sitting inside your narrow little comfort zone doing the things you know you can do well.
It’s testing yourself to do the other things and being prepared to encounter hurdles and, yes, being prepared to fail sometimes.
It is that process of risking a little bit and going outside your comfort zone and trying something a little bit hard that gives you the building blocks of confidence.
Can you give me an example?
Claire, for instance, wanted to try giving a speech without notes. She always thought she would be a better public speaker if she did it without notes. So she tried it.
She found herself stumbling and umming and the speech didn't go so great, but she realized two things: One, she was still standing, her kids were fine and no one had fired her. Two, maybe a totally blank page was not the way to go for her. So she modified it with a list of bullet points.
You’re not going to learn that unless you try.
How can learning to take a compliment build confidence?
Both Claire and I have struggled with this for a long time. We have done the classic self-deprecating. Someone pays you a compliment, and you say no, no, no.
But actually there is something very powerful and confidence-building in saying ‘thank you’ with a nice smile.
Here’s a way to frame it for yourself: To back that compliment away is not being very kind to the person who has just stuck their neck out and paid you a compliment. The kinder thing to do is to recognize that they have made this outreach to you and paid you a compliment for something you have done. So just thank them.
There are a lot of things that women can't control, but growing confidence is one we can.
2 Confidence To-Do Tips for Women
And here, as promised, are two of my favorite micro-tips from The Confidence Code:
1. Meditate. A calm brain is the ultimate confidence tool. It gives you an increased ability to control your emotions and be clear and calm about your goals.
2. Think small. Battle any feelings of being overwhelmed by breaking things down. Teasing out the individual parts of a challenge, and accomplishing even one-tenth of it, can give you a confidence boost. Thinking small can really be a big help.
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