Women just need to believe in themselves more. That’s often the prescription for righting gender inequities in the workplace. But a big part of the confidence gap is not being addressed, says Janet Crawford, CEO of Cascadance, Inc., an organizational change firm that helps companies address issues of under-representation and create cultures of inclusion.
“Low confidence is not an individual phenomenon, but is in part, a general consequence of something called stereotype threat,” Crawford says. “When you’re one of a few women in a department or the only woman in upper management, part of your brain becomes devoted to monitoring how you’re being perceived, whether you’re representing your group well or confirming negative stereotypes. As a result of this split attention, you feel anxious and may even underperform—and over time, your confidence flags.”
Another Confidence Killer
In addition to stereotype threat, women are subject to unconscious biases (everyone is, in fact). “Most of our brain operates on autopilot, using templates or shortcuts rather than starting from scratch to comprehend every person, place or thing we encounter,” Crawford says. “Research clearly shows that both men and women are unconsciously biased when it comes to gender. Even when we think we treat men and women equally, we apply differing standards without knowing it.”
For example, we expect women to be emotionally intelligent and compliant, while men should be commanding and decisive. So when a woman is assertive and strong, people say that she is shrill or needs her edges softened. A man exhibiting the same behavior might get feedback that he’s showing leadership potential.
Humans are also designed to unconsciously assess group power dynamics and to adopt survival strategies in alignment with the degree to which they belong or don’t belong to the dominant group. “When the brain’s unconscious assessment is that you’re the odd woman out, it’s natural to attempt to get along with the group that has more power,” Crawford explains. “We see these behaviors across all primate species—be inoffensive, make yourself small, do things that please the dominant group, don’t speak up. In other words, ‘lacking confidence’ is a natural human response to the condition of being one of only a few outsiders. We have to take that into account when blaming women for not speaking up or having enough self-assurance.”
Three Steps to Counter the Mind’s Natural Tendencies
First, know that you’re not imagining things. “A lot of women are walking around feeling like they’re taking crazy pills,” Crawford says. “But they’re not. They really are being treated differently from the guy next to them.”
Next, Crawford recommends doing whatever it takes to feel safe, relaxed and nurtured. “Facing stereotype threat, unconscious bias and power dynamics day in and day out can take a huge emotional, physical and mental toll,” Crawford explains. “So give yourself permission to have detox space—take lunch, go to the gym, get enough sleep. Women often won’t do this until they’re wrung out, but men would have gone to the bar or golf course a lot sooner. Take care of yourself so you can get a competitive edge.”
Finally, find allies—both men and women. As you enter the upper echelons, though, you may need to rely more on men. “There will probably be a lot fewer women, and the ones who are there may feel overwhelmed sponsoring every woman in the organization or wary of gaining the reputation of only supporting women,” Crawford says. “It’s also important to get men in charge of companies engaged in solving the under-representation of women. We won’t see real change until they are.”