Confidence is cultural

It’s impossible to capture in a single snapshot or a couple of lines the complex and interrelated issues of confidence, competence and control that can affect women in the workplace. Yet one of my favourite cartoons comes pretty close to pulling off the trick.

It depicts a boardroom meeting attended by numerous men and a lone woman. Cheerily acknowledging a contribution from the latter, the chairman enthuses: “That’s an excellent suggestion, Mrs Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.”

It’s an exaggeration, of course. It wouldn’t be funny otherwise – and yet, like most good comedy, it has its roots in reality. Nobody would deliver that line, but the point is that many female employees secretly imagine somebody might.

Competence without confidence isn’t enough

The main reason why confidence is so vital for anyone in the workplace is that it’s central to the demonstration of competence. In professional life, after all, it’s competence that counts.

As a general rule, women are required to prove their competence more than men. Women who lack confidence, therefore, face an especially difficult task in progressing their careers – and sometimes the outcome can be professionally devastating.

By way of illustration, consider the following remarks. They were made by a solicitor responsible for supervising a junior member of staff. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll refer to the subject of this unhappy but all too familiar tale as Ms A.

  • “Ms A was very bright but so lacking in confidence that clients didn’t believe she was competent. And that meant they didn’t trust her. They asked not to see her any more, except about the most straightforward matters.”

A story like Ms A’s underlines the value of self-efficacy – what the academic literature loosely defines as a person’s belief in his or her capacity to exert control and make things happen. It also highlights how our actions determine others’ impressions of us and how those impressions, in turn, reflect back and reshape us in an ongoing process of interaction.

As sociologist Erving Goffman wrote more than half a century ago in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life: “It is in [a person’s] interest to control the conduct of the other. This control is achieved largely by influencing the other’s definition of the situation.” Without self-efficacy, without self-belief, there’s scant hope of attaining this crucial goal.

Sometimes even praise isn’t enough

Some women employees’ lack of confidence is altogether less manifest. The consequences can be very different from those outlined above yet every bit as harmful.

“Imposter syndrome” was at first thought to be a distinct and ingrained personality trait. The consensus that has emerged more recently is that it’s a kind of reaction – one that almost anyone might exhibit in response to certain situations.

According to some studies, seven out of 10 people are likely to experience it. Even Einstein, who weeks before his death confessed that he regarded himself as “an involuntary swindler”, may not have been immune.

Now, if Einstein was a sufferer then we might reasonably conclude imposter syndrome doesn’t necessarily wreck a career in its formative stages – as with Ms A, for instance. And we would be right. The following summary is perhaps unduly simplistic, but it conveys a key distinction:

  • People such as Ms A lack of confidence, leading others to doubt their competence.
  • Imposter syndrome sufferers lack confidence despite others having no doubts whatsoever about their competence.

A wealth of research has shown this mindset is more prevalent among women. Significantly, the term “imposter syndrome” was first used in the 1970s in a study that observed high-achieving women’s reluctance to accept their own intelligence, abilities, talents and overall entitlement to success.

Irrespective of how high they climb, in spite of how obvious their gifts might be to others, imposter syndrome sufferers see themselves as undeserving frauds and live in fear of somehow being “found out”. Praise is no cure: it merely perpetuates the situation. The constant fight against the feeling of being a phoney can ultimately lead to burn-out.

The paradox of respectable femininity

So there are women whose lack of confidence is pivotal to how others view them; and there are women whose lack of confidence is pivotal to how they view themselves, regardless of the positive views of others. And in both cases, the results can be deeply detrimental.

There is, too, a further complication when contemplating potential solutions: confidence in women isn’t necessarily judged in the same way as confidence in men. This brings us to the paradox of what has been called “respectable femininity”, a subject I’ve researched extensively with Dr Dulini Fernando, of Warwick Business School.

In essence, this is a question of legitimacy. It’s typical of the contradictions that continue to confront women in the workplace, and it underscores the fine line between the promise of professional benefit and the risk of reputational damage. Why?

Well, how might a woman unmistakably convey her confidence? By dressing in a certain way? Then by being conspicuously outspoken? By joining her male colleagues for a few drinks after work?

Maybe; but could she do any of these while still conforming to a raft of “acceptable” social norms? There’s the rub – and that’s why many women, not least those lacking in confidence, find themselves trapped in the twilight zone between breaking the glass ceiling and sending their standing through the floor.

Confidence flourishes where it’s genuinely encouraged

The answer to all of the above could well be that women should just be allowed to be themselves – unafraid, unthreatened and unconstrained by unwritten rules or unspoken demands. This might sound unduly facile or even downright quixotic, but isn’t it really what lies at the absolute heart of the matter?

Of course, realising such an ideal isn’t easy. It can’t be, otherwise, the plights of Mrs Triggs and Ms A and countless “imposters” wouldn’t be so commonplace. However substantial the undertaking, though, support at an institutional level is imperative if there’s to be any prospect of meaningful change.

You might think such support already exists in the form of diversity and inclusion initiatives. But remember that these can just as easily serve to undermine confidence rather than build it – particularly if the people at whom they’re aimed, women included, perceive them as sources of unwarranted “favours” or “remedial” help.

Ultimately, these age-old and enduring problems won’t be solved by ticking boxes: they’ll be solved by gradual but momentous shifts in organisational culture. Confidence really does breed confidence, and the best way of proving as much is to foster environments in which confidence is allowed – and, more importantly, truly encouraged – 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

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