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Confidence Gap: How Childhood Conditioning Impacts Women at Work

When women feel confident in themselves, it impacts how they present themselves at work. They win recognition more easily, and find new opportunities opening up to them.

Over the many millennia that humans have been in existence, we have successfully, and rather unfortunately, created stark differences in how we raise girls and boys. One of the results is a confidence gap, where women do not feel confident enough to present their ideas or work to their co-workers and consequently, receive less recognition.

This process of eroding confidence starts from childhood. A simple example to explain this would be the difference in perception of fears. When a girl is afraid of lizards or heights, it is assumed to be “natural” and a man in her life (brother/father) is sent to her aid. However, if a boy is afraid under similar circumstances, he is encouraged to overcome his fears and to “be a man”. Thus, we teach girls that they are incapable of handling their own problems and that they do not need to be independent.

Similarly, in many homes, girls see the opinions of male members of the family being given more importance and internalize that the ideas and opinions of women do not deserve attention.

At every step, men and women grow up with many such subconscious prejudices and carry the same to their workplace too. That is why we need to understand the confidence gap at work, and how we can be conscious of it in our interpersonal relationships.

How the confidence gap impacts women

Shailaja Naik* joined a leading FMCG company as a management trainee. She came from an environment where stereotypical assumptions prevailed, for e.g. that job descriptions for men and women would be different. The company assigned her a sales stint as a part of her training in one of the small towns in Eastern India. Her reaction to this development was far from positive. The added skepticism from her family only added to her loss of confidence.

She reached the location, only to find the ground salesmen taking her too casually since she was a woman in a sales (read, man’s) job. Since a part of her agreed with this assumption, she struggled to make her presence felt. It took a lot of mentorship and counseling from senior women in the organization to help her get over her apprehensions. Once she did that, she managed a successful stint in her territory.

Akanksha Babbar*, a psychologist, who works closely with many corporate employees, says, the confidence gap often leads to women taking a step back in fields that are predominantly dominated by men such as sales and technology. This enables them to stay in their comfort zone, but the flip side is that they receive fewer opportunities and promotions. She coaches women on how to eliminate these differences in their minds and look at a job only on the basis of the deliverables, gaining the confidence in themselves to take it up.

Besides childhood conditioning to not draw attention to oneself, other factors that impact confidence can also be taking a career break for maternity or high time pressure. The constant tussle of performing on all fronts often leaves women with no time to follow their own pursuits. This leads to a further hit in self-confidence and a feeling of not living up to expectations.

What can orgs do about the confidence gap?

Centuries of conditioning will not go away from our society in a decade but the good news is that employers are making a positive difference.

Corporate mentorship programs really work, especially when they are accompanied by the presence of role models in the company. One of the ways in which young women gain confidence is by noting the presence of other women in the organization who have grown, assumed greater responsibility, and now are leading others. This helps them move away from false assumptions about the role of gender in our lives, and internalize that they too can do it.

Mentorship also helps women understand the stumbling blocks in their path and work on it in a more actionable manner. The presence of women’s networks in companies has also helped many women examine the role of such conditioning in their lives and work to overcome it. At the same time, gender sensitivity training has helped many male managers and peers respond with greater empathy to women who lack confidence.

*Names changed for privacy