How women can fill the gap

As chair of Northwestern University’s Council of 100, you’d think I could look around to find no shortage of confidence among this group of 100 women leaders in their respective fields. And yet, each time there are introductions and recitations of accomplishments of late, I hear over and over again: “Wow, now she’s impressive.”  It’s as if everyone is looking left and looking right admiring the woman next to her but not embracing how good the person is in the seat they’re sitting.

I get it. I’m modest too, and I take great joy in celebrating the achievements of those around me. I’ve also been that person many times who admires others and downplays what I know out of deference to those I think of as uniquely impressive. The challenge is to find a balance between humility and over-confidence.

Women excel at compromise and men excel at risk-taking, according to a recent Pew Research Center study of Americans. When it comes to intelligence and capacity for innovation, women are seen as strong as men. Women edge out men as being compassionate and organized leaders. The message here to me is not only should women take their rightful leadership place beside men in business and politics, but there are advantages women can capitalize on. Imagine if women were heads of all countries in the world; perhaps there could be more compromise and less conflict.

In an Atlantic article titled, “The Confidence Gap,” the authors note, “Do men doubt themselves sometimes? Of course. But not with such exacting and repetitive zeal, and they don’t let their doubts stop them as often as women do.”  In addition to the multiple psychological aspects associated with this, they cite a Cambridge University study of male traders that found a direct correlation between increased levels of testosterone and confidence.

With all those dynamics, how do women do a better job feeding and drawing on a reservoir of confidence? Given more than 25 years working with women in the journalism, politics, civics and business arenas, including female leaders reaching to the CEO level, I recommend the following:

  1. Conduct self-talk: If you were your own coach, what would you tell yourself?  Identify three words that inspire you. Or your kick-in-the-butt rallying phrase. Or the same things you tell other women when you’re motivating. Try different things at different times.
  2. Identify role models: Female and male, I’ve observed people over the years who epitomize the balance of vulnerability and confidence I like to emulate. And, in some cases, I focus on people so extreme in their projected confidence that, on balance, it takes me just far enough.
  3. Let it go: It’s critical not to dwell on negatives and not let them shake your confidence. It’s not easy. As women we very much ruminate on things more.  Allow yourself to take some time to mentally acknowledge a negative, then move on.
  4. Set your standards: As a mom, I wrestle with how much time for work vs. time with my kids. For me, quality is even more important than quantity. Decide what kind of person you’re going to be. What kind of leader. What kind of mom. Then live by that. It relieves some of the self-imposed pressure.
  5. Celebrate successes: Practice the old 10 compliments for every 1 criticism on yourself. Take the time to pause and savor the small to signature successes as often as you can. You could even keep a list to remind yourself.
  6. Have positive distractions: Find the things you enjoy that serve as a distraction or maybe even a confidence booster. Perhaps it’s music. Or sports. Or art.  Whatever they are, have moments to immerse in them for you.
  7. Be present: Being in the moment is not only a great way to better connect with others, but it’s a way to block the cycle of consuming self-doubt that can creep in when you’re being tough on yourself about something.
  8. Engage supporters: There’s nothing like a great support system to remind yourself why you have good reason for confidence. As a woman, you’re probably already placing enough reality checks on yourself, so having some unabashed fans is a good thing.
  9. Draw on optimism: I’d say a big part of confidence is how you look at the world.  Optimism allows for the ability to see the good even in things that might challenge your confidence and greater resilience in recovering from them.

Even in doing all that, confidence can be a daily exercise. Inevitably there are days your confidence takes a hit. But wake up fresh the next day, look in the mirror, and let yourself acknowledge: Yes, she’s all that.

Tina-Marie Adams

Tina-Marie Adams is managing director of APCO Worldwide’s Chicago office and is a more than 25 year communications veteran. Read More