Why women are less confident and what we need to do to change that

Why are women less self-assured than men? Why does so much research point to the fact that while women have just as much talent and ability as men to make it, they all-too-often lack confidence when it comes to their careers. 

This lack of self-belief is something that I can all too well sympathise with. While outwardly chatty and confident with friends and family, in the workplace and at networking events, I often find myself questioning why anyone would want to talk with me and whether what I have to say is interesting enough. Take today, I stood right next to the broadcaster Jon Snow (C4's News Anchor) and failed miserably to rustle up a conversation to thank him for chairing a thought-provoking panel session I had just listened to. What I was concerned about, I am not too sure, but something stopped me, despite the fact that I had been happily tweeting comments throughout the conference. 

Like many young women, throughout school and university I had been taught to keep my head down, work hard and play by the rules, certain that if I adhered to this, somehow my talent and efforts would be rewarded. And while at school and university such an approach served me well, when I stepped into the outside world I soon learnt that success, no matter how hard you work comes with no guarantee. And just because you work 16 hours a day, diligently go beyond your daily tasks and excel in every one, this does not mean that you'll be recognised for your achievements.  

In my 10 years, I have increasingly learnt that if you want to gain that all-important recognition and carve out a path to success, you have to get out there. Not only do you need to seize every opportunity and chance to show what you're capable of, but you also need to shout about it too. And for this to happen you need that all-important trait - confidence. 

Of course, I should caveat that there are many ways to define success and what that means is personal to each of us. For some women it is getting to the top of a corporate company, for others it might be to do something creative, starting their own business or raising a family. 

Whatever you define as success however, the fundamental issue of female self-doubt remains. Of course I am not talking about every woman in the UK, but the evidence is palpable. In 2011, the UK Institute of Leadership and Management surveyed British managers about how confident they feel in their professions. Half the female respondents reported self-doubt about their job performance and careers. Only a third of the men surveyed expressed such doubt. At Manchester Business School, Professor Marilyn Davidson reports that every year there are massive differences between what men and women expect to receive in terms of their post-graduating starting salary, with women usually quoting 20% less than their male counterparts.

Coming to the fore is also neurological evidence to suggest that women process emotional energy differently to men, which means when they receive negative feedback, it weighs far more heavily on them – and the impact can be more profound. How much we can overcome this - scientists are yet to discover but looking at the differences between male and female brains is still perceived as a taboo - with women fearing that the results of tests could impact on them negatively. 

When you speak to women about how they think they might have done on a particular test or essay, they all-too-often take the glass half empty approach, whereas the men tend to be far more bullish in their predictions. And then, if a female ends up scoring highly, all-too-often the answer is ‘oh I just got lucky…’ rather than 'I deserved that.' Yet in the workplace, if a woman is perceived to be speaking too much in meetings, or talks openly about their ambition to climb the ladder or is seeking out opportunities to self-promote, they can be labelled somewhat unfortunately a ‘b*tch’ or on a ‘power trip’ – a charge that is rarely levelled against men who exhibit the same traits. 

Some employers are beginning to take a proactive approach in addressing concerns on confidence – making it a formal part of the official review process for employees, so that both men and women receive the advice they need to improve their confidence – indicating the weight given to this trait in working life.  

The treatment of women in the workplace is perhaps indicative of the way in which women across society are seemingly judged differently to men – be it for their actions, their appearance or even their opinions… I don’t have the answers as to why women seem to be judged with a far more critical eye, nor do I have the answers as to what can be done to change this, but what I do know is that when it comes to your career, the best thing you can do to overcome a lack of confidence is to practice.

By acting more confidently and putting yourself into new situations where you'll need to test this, you can start training your brain to become more confident. Treat it like a skill you wish to acquire. If you want to learn a new sport or take up a new hobby, you should not expect to be brilliant straight away. To get good at something you need to practice. To get good at something, you have to act. 

And so, if you take one thing from this article let it be this, practice being more confident. The more you do it, the easier it will become. There are no shortcuts but ironically by working hard and focusing – you'll be on a crucial path to closing your own confidence gap. 

Now I just need to find Jon Snow again…