Women, the confidence gap, and what we can do about it

With the recent termination of New York Times Executive Editor, Jill Abramson, there has been a lot of buzz around the gender gap in higher level positions across the workforce. Just one day before this news broke, I read a piece in The Atlantic entitled “The Confidence Gap,” which examines the effect lack of confidence can have on performance in the workplace and overall upward mobility, especially as it applies to women. As a young professional female, this article struck a cord with me. I associate with much of the findings in this piece and struggle to understand how my attitude can affect my performance.

Sheryl Sandberg illustrates this very same topic in her book “Lean In,” arguing that in order for women to advance in the workplace, there needs to be both a transition in mindset by female professionals and also a culture shift in the workplace. The general finding is that women are often selling themselves short by relying too heavily on perfectionism, limiting their career pursuits to positions for which they are assured they meet all of the requirements, and generally lacking confidence in their overall performance. This has serious implications for growth opportunities in both career advancement and salary increase.

Nevertheless, women viewed as overconfident or demanding tend to be labeled negatively by their peers and subordinates. Abramson was unfortunately not received positively by many Times employees and evidently hit her “last straw” when she attempted to negotiate her salary and pension benefits to equal that of her predecessor. I will be interested to see if the Times does release the numbers here, which will either strengthen her case and draw much debate, or validate the paper’s decision to let her go in the public eye.

For the larger population of female professionals, this dilemma leaves them balancing on a tightrope to advocate for themselves with confidence while maintaining the ideals of female behavior to remain favored in the workplace. I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone who has mastered this.

While I am still working out how to approach this dilemma as I grow in my career, the recent publicity on the topic has gotten me thinking of ways women can begin to make a difference. While not everyone may have access to a female mentor, examining the behaviors of successful female professionals in your own network or in the public is a good place to start. Understanding what has made these women succeed might help you identify what characteristics you share and how you can use them to your advantage. Another thing women must learn to do (myself included), is to take risks. Learning to take risks in your personal life may open you up to the idea of reaching further in your career.

I’m interested to hear what others have to say on this topic and any advice you may have for woman trying to bridge the gender and confidence gap.


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