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Not just a confidence vote

Women are held to unrealistic and unobtainable goals in the workplace, hindering their career progression, says Dana Denis-Smith

10 October 2019

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It’s a theory often repeated that women are not reaching the top in law, or in other professions, because they lack confidence.

Whether it’s a reluctance to demand a pay rise, put themselves forward for promotions, or a hesitancy to speak up in meetings, this perceived lack of confidence in their own abilities is apparently holding women back from progressing.

Of course, there are plenty of men who aren’t 100 per cent sure they have what it takes, but I’ve never heard a man being told his confidence is lacking.

Instead it’s women who are blamed for not believing in themselves enough, by employers who are doing precious little to give them a reason to do so.

It may be true that women are less comfortable promoting themselves and their achievements, but this is not down to confidence.

Perhaps it’s not surprising women are reluctant self-promoters, given that those who are assertive and know their own worth, can then be criticised for being arrogant or aggressive.

The gender norms in our society still dictate that women should be more modest and caveat their achievements as being down to teamwork, whereas men who appear sure of themselves are rewarded.

In so many workplaces women are still not being given a working environment in which they are able to thrive.

They are not being trusted or given the opportunities, the responsibility or the support they need to prove themselves. If women are not given the opportunity to lead, to present to an audience, to be on the team pitching for work or to take on the most high-profile cases, they won’t get the experience needed to build those skills.

This in turn traps women into a vicious circle: not ready in terms of experience but also unable to achieve ‘readiness’ without businesses trusting them with responsibility.

Outdated, traditional views about women with children persist; and maternity discrimination sees many women losing their jobs while pregnant or on maternity leave.

On returning to work from time out, many hardworking women are watching their backs, worried they will be considered no longer committed to their careers.

Women are held to unrealistic and unobtainable goals – always expected to demonstrate peak performance and told they are ‘not quite ready’ for promotion.

They are then persuaded they suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’: should they listen to their ambition or believe the negative messages that they are not as good as they need to be for the next job?

It’s no wonder so many decide to leave the profession. Telling someone they need to be more confident is a difficult observation to counter. It’s subjective and essentially a criticism.

Yet when pressed, managers often have difficulty coming up with examples that demonstrate a lack of authority or failure to speak up. Inevitably, as women begin to believe that not being sufficiently self-confident is their problem, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Good workplaces celebrate strengths. They look at what employees do well and give praise for their achievements. If there are concerns about confidence, the way to deal with it is to build people up rather than blame individuals.

If self-promotion is the issue, then normalise the practice of talking about achievements so that those less happy to blow their own trumpet get the opportunity to demonstrate what they have done, alongside those who are willing to do so.

The kind of lazy stereotyping that tolerates the use of negative language to put down women and blames low confidence for lack of equality at the top, keeps women in their place.

It places the responsibility for closing the gender gap on individual women when the solution may well lie beyond their control.

Dana Denis-Smith is a non-practising solicitor and founder of The First 100 Years project first100years.org.uk

Categorised in:

Business development & Strategy HR & Development Ethics, professionalism and judgement

Tagged in:

diversity; gender