One of my favourite cartoons depicts a boardroom meeting. Delightedly acknowledging a contribution from the only woman present, the chairman declares: “That’s an excellent suggestion, Mrs Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.”
This scene comes close to capturing in a single snapshot the complex issue of confidence for women in the workplace. The scenario may well be exaggerated in the interests of getting a laugh, but it has its roots in reality. Let’s examine why.
The principal reason why confidence is crucial to anyone’s working life is that it’s central to the demonstration of competence. As a general rule, women have to prove their competence more than men, which is why those who lack confidence face an especially tough task in advancing their careers.
Sometimes the corollaries can be professionally ruinous. Take the following observation, made by a solicitor responsible for supervising a junior member of staff: “She was very bright but so lacking in confidence that clients didn’t believe she was competent. They asked not to see her anymore, except about the most straightforward matters.”
Such a story highlights the importance of self-efficacy – a person’s belief in his or her capacity to exert control. In tandem, it demonstrates how our actions determine others’ impressions of us and how those impressions, in turn, reflect back and reshape us.
“Imposter syndrome” was once believed to be an ingrained personality trait. Now the consensus is that it’s a form of reaction that almost anyone might exhibit in response to certain situations.
It doesn’t necessarily destroy a career in its formative stages. In fact, the term was first used in the 1970s in a study that observed high-achieving women’s reluctance to accept their own abilities and entitlement to success.
Regardless of their accomplishments and the praise others shower on them, sufferers see themselves as frauds and live in fear of being “found out”.
According to some studies, seven out of 10 people are likely to experience the phenomenon. It’s suggested that even Einstein wasn’t immune: he admitted only weeks before his death that he thought of himself as “an involuntary swindler”. A sizeable body of research indicates the mindset is more prevalent among women.
We know, then, that there are women whose lack of confidence influences how others see them; and we also know there are women whose lack of confidence influences how they see themselves. To this potentially devastating mix, we must add the further complication that confidence in women isn’t always judged in the same way as confidence in men.
By way of illustration, imagine that a woman seeks to exhibit her confidence by being outspoken, dressing in a certain way and joining her male colleagues for a few post-work drinks. Could she do any of these things while still conforming to “acceptable” social norms?
This fine line between the promise of professional benefit and the risk of reputational damage encapsulates the paradox of what has come to be known as “respectable femininity”. It boils down to a fundamental question of legitimacy – one with a tangled web of potentially crippling contradictions at its heart.
Confidence is cultural
In the end, although the notion may sound unconvincingly simple, the most effective answer to all of these issues is to allow women in the workplace to be themselves. They need to feel unafraid. They need to feel unthreatened. They need to feel unhindered by tacit demands and unwritten rules.
It’s tempting to think the institutional support required to make this happen already exists in the shape of diversity and inclusion initiatives. Yet it’s vital to recognise these can just as easily serve to damage confidence rather than enhance it, not least if the purported beneficiaries perceive them as little more than box-ticking “favours”.
Genuinely meaningful change will come about only in light of a deeply significant shift in organisational culture. Although there’s no doubt that we’ve come a long way, the journey is far from over.
The cartoon I mentioned earlier underlines the point. I do love it, but the fact that it somehow still rings true is actually no laughing matter. Confidence really does breed confidence, and it’s high time we realised that the best way of proving as much is to encourage environments in which self-belief and all of its attendant qualities are free to flourish in the first place.
Laurie Cohen is a Professor of Work and Organisation at Nottingham University Business School and the author of Imagining Women’s Careers. firstname.lastname@example.org