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I’ve Been Thinking …The Confidence Gap

I have read much of the literature and attended many conferences about women’s issues in business. One of the first things you always hear about is the confidence gap—that women don’t feel sure about their leadership abilities, that they are hesitant to take risks, that they are not outspoken and tend to stay back, don’t push, don’t challenge. They do not push for promotions or raises as effectively as men do. That does not sound like the cowgirl way!

Immediately, women are treated differently. Everyone is on high alert. Nostrils flare. When does a well-meant criticism cross the line and become harassment? I know that many men in business are less likely to correct women than they are men. Too often, men miss an opportunity to offer well-intended criticism, which means that women miss the opportunity to learn. If that happens over and over, it may not be such a surprise why women tend to lose confidence after their first year or two at work. They often get left off of the invitation list to activities their male counterparts participate in. If a woman is included, the men have to watch what they say. Fun over.

I have frequently put my male counterparts at ease by talking about the highlights of a football game, or using candor or homespun humor to make a point. If I describe something that is stronger than bear’s breath, then they know they don’t have to walk on eggshells around me. Don’t try this unless you can really be authentic, but if you can, it is pretty powerful.

So what’s the difference between these women and my cowgirls? No one worried about shouting at cowgirls when they made a mistake, because they would just grin and holler back. Many women today have not grown up in the rough-and-tumble world of cowgirls, are not used to well-meaning criticism, and as a result, they don’t handle it well. So women have a tendency to stay in safe places. That choice makes them seem unengaged and indecisive.

To compound the problem is the fact that some women’s use of language makes them seem tentative and uncertain. Phrases like “I think” or “I just” slip into the discourse.11 I recently did several focus groups at different universities, and many of the young women I spoke with used “I think” every few minutes. Stop it! Women tend to talk too fast and without enough emphasis on key points. And then there is that deadliest of all communications sins, up talking. You have all heard this. It is when a person’s voice pitch lilts up at the end of a sentence. It makes the statement seem indecisive and weak. I say no to this! Hire a speech therapist if you suffer from this So debilitating affliction.

So women are often afraid to speak up, to take risks. Men are afraid to give them a hand and help them improve because it might come across as sexist and demeaning. What a mess! There is no single villain here. Most of the men I know are actually drawn to strong, powerful women, and champion them. And I don’t believe there are a lot of women out there who would not like to lead successful lives.

I have read articles about building confidence that suggest you can just decide to be confident like it is a learned behavior. “Stand up straight, lower your voice, slow down,” I have heard them all. Sorry, it does not work that way. Authentic confidence means being true to yourself about what you have actually achieved, not how you are perceived. You have to believe that you have important ideas and perspectives. You have to believe that you have earned the right to express them. Your competence comes from your talent, education, and contributions to your team. Then confidence follows right along.

There is no way around this. If you want to be more powerful, you are going to have to know more than anyone else in the room. You have to do your research and think things through. You cannot fake it. You do not have to do it all your- self; build up your team to help you. But you must have vision, insight, and conviction in what you bring to the table. If you don’t, you will not be authentic. It simply does not work.

If you are not confident in your own competence, then focus all of your energy on yourself for a while. Learn new things. Become an expert. It takes time, hard work, and dedication. Then you will earn real respect and admiration. Your confidence will come, and when it does, you will become a powerful, assertive character who is authentic because she has done the work. There are many ways to build your confidence, but few shortcuts. Competence breeds confidence, which breeds assertiveness, which breeds more personal power, which breeds more flexibility for a successful life.

“Cowgirl Power” is about kicking ass in business and life, published by Center Street, an imprint of Hachette Book Group.

Gay Gaddis is CEO and founder of T3–The Think Tank. In 1989, she started her company after cashing in a $16,000 IRA. Today, T3 has offices nationwide and creates innovative digital marketing programs for Fortune 200 clients. T3 is a top-ranked innovation firm and one of the largest agencies owned by a woman. Gay has been nationally recognized for the unique family-friendly policies she initiated at T3.

This essay was featured in the June 10th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.