Confidence in Women: The Uncomfortable Truth
Ladies, own it. We have to change this societal norm.
Confidence in women. Why is this a testy subject? Aren’t we past all of the feminine self-doubt and on to the bright path of women out there blazing paths to their own successes, unapologetically?
I think as a society we really want to believe we are, but we are, in fact, not there yet.
Confidence: It is Different for the Sexes
Why is it so hard for society to applaud confidence in women the same way it does for men? Have you ever said something positive about yourself only to have the other person respond with a gasp, or worse; they call you conceited or layer on the hate as soon as your back is turned?
Women are often immediately apologetic when confidence appears too harsh, brash, or stated too boldly. The world has a problem with women feeling powerful in their own minds and skin. I admit I am part of the problem.
Confidence 101: Trying it Out Felt Awkward
This week a coworker paid me a very nice compliment. I have taken a content writer position with a large company and my manager in the content team has the job of reviewing my work before it goes to the next level of editorial review. My latest article was on a new subject for me and the directions for writing it were very different from what I’ve been doing for them since day one. The tone, direction, and content were all different.
As it turns out, they loved my first attempt at this new blog structure.
My manager “Slacked” me and complimented me on a job well done. She said the tone was very “clinical” and it suited this particular assignment well. She complimented me and asked if I have any trouble doing that; shifting gears with my tone from one type of assignment to the next, as we often write in a conversational or entertaining tone.
I answered too quickly. I said no, I find it easy.
I explained that I studied science for my degree, so clinical and informational tone come easy, even if I need to pursue the language I want to use for the piece. Then I briefly addressed shifting to a more “flowery” tone as a matter of word choice and sentence structure, etc. But, I admitted that I find them both easy to do. Switching gears; easy peasy.
Now, to explain, I am not an overconfident writer. I approach that circle of content writers feeling very much like the newbie at the table, the one that has to prove I deserve a seat at the table. Even when others look at me and see my strengths before I do. But this conversation with my manager has bugged me all week.
Why? As women, why do we default to apologetic when we step out in confidence?
I accepted a compliment on my work. Big deal. Men do this all the time and we don’t question their ability to take a compliment.
I answered a question with confidence and spoke to my expertise. Big deal. Men do this all the time and we do not ask them to prove their voice is worth listening to.
I didn’t receive any negative responses to the conversation — so why has this marinated in my mind all week, causing me to doubt my reaction?
Because I am afraid that admitting my strengths makes me look over-confident, conceited, arrogant, or like I think too highly of myself. And if you are a woman; those things can be big deals. Those things get us labeled very quickly. You know the words we get called for that kind of behavior.
People literally cringe when a woman makes a confident statement about herself.
My sister, for example, is a highly respected medical doctor. She made a statement in my presence once that set me back a breath. She said in the middle of whatever story she was sharing, “…and I am very good at what I do.” It wasn’t that she said it. It was the unshakable truth behind what she said.
I remember that half-second recoil and later felt ashamed. She had been correct. The academic and medical professionals in her circle agree — she is very good at what she does. What if that statement had been made by a man? Would my breath have wavered, at all? Likely not. I learned at that moment, I need to work on how I dole out the respect I have for others, and to be sure I do it in equal measure. I was given a sharp reminder in that brief conversation that women have every damn right to make a statement to their strengths and there’s no need for an apology.
And trust me, I do not think too highly of myself. I am still cringing that I used the term “my expertise” a few paragraphs back. But this all has me thinking about how far we’ve come as women and how much further we could go if we gave ourselves permission to want big, dream big, do big, and carry ourselves with a little bit of baddassery.
As women, we do need more of those “shoulders back” moments like what Michelle Marie Warner described in her article How to Embrace Your Inner Bad Girl, reminding us that “What others may consider bad qualities are advantageous for living a full and balanced life.” (Emphasis mine.)
Think of how successful I would really be as a freelance writer without any confidence in my work or my abilities. Part of the job is selling my work, rising to new challenges, and setting myself apart from a saturated field of talented writers. When a compliment is paid to my work, I need to be willing to say thank you and embrace my own positive feedback. Likewise, I need to speak to my own strengths in order to gain new work.
When a man is asked to speak to his own strengths, we sit back and absorb what he is saying, and as long as he does not present himself as arrogant, we typically trust that he knows what he is talking about. Somehow, for women, we still have not gained that kind of social ground. We must have “earned” the right to speak to a topic and present that information prior to our opinions. The male privilege is quite real in this regard.
For women, we apologize for being too forward, too boldly spoken, or even for overstepping if there is a qualified male in the vicinity of our own voices, but we need to stop doing that altogether. Stop apologizing. Stop overexplaining. Stop waiting for the approval for our own self-confidence to exist.
For men, a lack of confidence is often considered a weakness. Is this true of women? I am not so sure. These labels do more damage to further cultural imbalances in the workplace and in our homes. To rectify this, all voices (male, female, and everyone else) need to be able to speak confidently about themselves and what they have to offer the world.
And when people do this, we need to acknowledge the other person’s right to say it and own it. We do this by checking ourselves when we feel that jump in our attention or our breath when a woman’s confidence catches us off-guard. We do it by checking ourselves when we try to smooth over our own confident behavior for others.
Somehow, as a society of gender diversity, we need to make self-confidence, leadership, and the trading of intellectual thought — more ok. For all of us.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
— Still I Rise, by MAYA ANGELOU
Christina M. Ward is a freelance writer, poetry writer and editor. She does not apologize for the confidence it took her to write this article. It’s a start.