Women’s confidence declines with experience – why, and what can we do about it?

An Authentic Leadership study found that women’s confidence actually declines with experience: 27% of new female employees are confident they can reach top management; this drops to a mere 13% in experienced female employees.

This seems counter-intuitive. Why don’t we get more confident as our experience grows?

Reasons will be different for all of us but there are some definite themes that I see in my work.

Motherhood is a massive shock to the system and you put yourself to the bottom of the pile for so long it becomes a habit and as you start to get a handle on that the menopause starts to loom and the physical and mental impacts can affect us.

We are tired, as the sandwich generation who often have caring responsibilities for older family members and kids it can really take its toll.

We get criticized and take it to heart, hearing the negatives and missing the positives.

Imposter phenomenon, while everyone has an element of this, it seems to be more prevalent in women.

We see other people getting promoted and we can start to feel frustrated and resentful.

Here are some thoughts about countering some of the knocks to our confidence:

  • Things happen and we get set-backs, everyone does. We take knocks along the way, everyone does but they can start to build up and we build up a story of failure and things going wrong.
  • Our brains are hard-wired to hear the negatives, we question ourselves and take negative experiences and feedback as hard evidence of where we are not good enough. We can counter this by looking for evidence that we are good enough. Keep a record of positive feedback, thank yous, successes, achievements, no matter how small. Have them somewhere you can see them easily if you are feeling low. A client of mine was invited to a work event, in a prestigious venue. Her immediate thought was I don’t know why I have been invited. But when we unpicked why she might have been asked it became pretty obvious that there were good reasons based on contributions she had made and she deserved to be there. It changed her view going into the event and meant she could actually enjoy it.
  • It can be a challenge being a female in business, especially in male dominated environments. While there have been massive improvements in equality there is still a long way to go.
  • Get yourself a support network. This could mean joining groups at work or seeking out external networks, could be ex-colleagues, could be a networking group, professional development or getting yourself a mentor. I know from personal experience that this takes courage but it is worth it. Start small by reconnecting with old colleagues and making the effort to get to know co-workers. Lots of businesses are setting up female networks within businesses to help. Having other likeminded professionals around you can give you a second opinion or some back up when you are questioning yourself and can give you a sense check if you are being too harsh on yourself. They understand the unique set of challenges that you face. Lifting other people up helps to encourage a positive work environment. If you can help someone else then do it, it makes you and them feel better.
  • Becoming a parent, especially once you have been on maternity leave can have a massive impact on your confidence. Being tired doesn’t help. The juggle of life with children is immense and having time out of the work place can make you feel vulnerable. We underestimate how much things have changed ourselves so no wonder employers and managers struggle to help. In my experience we don’t give much structured support to maternity returners.
  • Noticing how you feel and what support you need and asking for it can be really important. It is in the interest of the business to make sure you settle back in after maternity leave but also support later on for parents is needed. We have a lot on our plates too (trust me I have teenagers) what they need from you changes but doesn’t get easier. If you don’t ask for what you need it can be hard for your company to help you.
  • Keep your personal development on your to-do list. I’m sure you are looking after everyone else’s development but what about you. When I was doing a job-share in an HR Manager role I was so focused on getting as much done as I could in part-time hours that I completely neglected my own development. I avoided training and “extra” events in favour of the to-do list. Now I have since learned that is not the way to be visible at work. But the impact was that I didn’t learn new things, I stagnated and I felt less confident. Keeping up to date with new ideas will help your confidence in your own abilities as a professional.
  • Ask for a coach or a mentor. We all have different development needs and 1:1 coaching can help you focus on your gaps rather than a generic course. It also allows you to be really honest about where you are struggling, which isn’t easy when you get to a certain level. Now I probably would say that as a coach, but I have benefited massively from coaching and I am passionate that others get that chance too.

Success looks different for us all but the more self-aware we become and the more support we have the easier it is to deal with challenges as they come up without it denting your confidence.

Jennie Beasley
Connect with me on Linkedin

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