By Caoilfhionn McNamara
During this pandemic, our lives have changed in more ways than one and we are spending a great deal of time confined to our homes. It has given me time to self-reflect, and lately I have been thinking a lot about confidence and empowerment. Mainly because it’s something that I feel I could improve on and so I’m always on the hunt for new strategies to grow my own self-confidence. At the same time, I have recognised this feeling in so many other women. Especially now, I can see how much Ireland is being taken care of by an army of women. Women, who are putting their own lives at risk to protect the vulnerable in society. My own mother is a retired nurse, so for me, it is quite personal to see so many women at the centre of a crisis, who usually aren’t given enough credit for the work they do. I feel hopeful that through this crisis, these women will not only recognise their own worth, but be recognised by the rest of the nation and certainly by our government for their bravery in this time.
Female leaders all over the world have been praised for their handling of the coronavirus. That is not to say that their male counterparts are faring any better or worse but it is important for women to be exposed to this success in order to believe that a political career is achievable. It is important for us to know that it makes a difference when women are in the room. Just one woman in a boardroom full of men can change the outcome of a decision. Women in Irish society are becoming more empowered than they have ever been. Indeed, they are achieving in all aspects of life. Today, there are more Irish women in universities than ever before, and in 2019, over half (51%) of all Irish adults in third level education were female . Irish women are also more likely to start a business than in any other EU country. This is why it is more important than ever to use our voices and ensure they are heard.
With all of this in mind, why then is there still an ever-present confidence gap between men and women, which is especially prevalent in the workplace? That’s not to say that every woman reading this article lacks confidence, but if you are someone who feels like you might, don’t fret. According to Caroline Foran, Irish Author of The Confidence Kit, confidence is not something we are born with. It is simply a skill that can be learned. She tells us that confidence is not a personality type, “instead, we cultivate it through experience.” You should never describe yourself as someone who lacks self-confidence, as this is not a “definitive statement about you as a person.” All it does is create destructive behaviours that can keep success out of your reach.
Certain research suggests that women don’t necessarily lack confidence or competence, but in the workplace they are less likely to self-promote, as there is a worry this could result in backlash. When women assert themselves, it can be very often seen as bossiness, so it can be in a woman’s best interest to hold back and remain in her comfort zone if she wants to be ‘liked’ in the workplace. In that regard, there is a clear double standard between men and women. Women are expected to have what is termed as “prosocial skills”, which is to have empathy and warmth, as well as being confident and assertive.
Men are not held to such high standards. Women can harbour a sense of impostor syndrome, feeling like they may not deserve their role, that it was an accident they were hired and they will be ‘discovered’ at any minute. This can be really damaging for a person’s mental health and career. Although men are not exempt from imposter syndrome, studies have shown that men do not let these feelings affect them as much as women do. These issues are preventing extremely capable women from sitting at the top table, with leadership roles still being dominated by men. In the EU, men earn almost 15% more than women, and just 8% of CEO's of the EU's largest companies are women. Women need to start believing in themselves and in their own ability in order for inequality and gender discrimination in the workplace to change. On average, a third of our lives are spent at work, which means our self-esteem and self-worth can stem from our jobs. It is too much time spent in a place where you might feel like you are not fully listened to or you are not good enough for the role you have earned. It is clear that a change needs to come from inside the workplace. Men need to be held to the same standards as women in order for this to happen.
Perhaps “prosocial skills” could be part of the job description? Perhaps HR policy should change to include equal opportunity legislation? Perhaps more campaigns need to be created in order for employers and employees to gain more awareness around this issue. But for now, women need to be unapologetic when it comes to being assertive. They need to push forwards without the fear of failure or rejection and ask for that pay rise, speak up in that meeting and not feel anxious about how they are being perceived.
Five Strategies That Can Start You on Your Journey to Empowerment:
Educate yourself – Firstly, start spending time learning about the confidence gap in the workplace. You may be extremely confident, and it may not affect you personally, but it is an issue that still prevents women from getting to the top. In order to overcome these barriers to change and spread the message, we need to grow our own knowledge first. Start conversations with other women about this issue, make it known and discuss it openly among your colleagues. Maybe even set up a meeting at work and find out who else is experiencing this feeling.
Change your mindset – According to Carol Dweck, Author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, there are two mindsets. The fixed mindset, which means you are born with a fixed character and intelligence, that cannot be changed. And the growth mindset, meaning you have the capability to determine your own character and intelligence. Our view of ourselves determines everything, and changing how we see ourselves can have a very powerful impact on our future. Dweck says that having a growth mindset means knowing that you are not successful because you are more ‘gifted’ than others, this success comes from truly believing that your effort will eventually pay off. If you haven't read her book, take the time to. Dweck’s book is available on audible if you don’t have time to read it. The Key Takeaways from her book can be found here.
Find a role model – We all have one. Reach out to the person you look up to most. Spend time with them. Discuss your own personal goals and share your accomplishments with them. Doing this can also help you build connections and your own personal network, which can enhance your career in itself.
Make time for personal development – Taphephobia is the fear of being buried alive. According to Irish Author Susan Ryan, people have rated the fear of being buried alive below the fear of public speaking. If you are one of these people who freezes when it comes to speaking out in public, then it is time to find your voice. Toastmasters sessions are workshops which are run throughout the country and help people become more comfortable when speaking to an audience. It is a non-profit organisation and has helped people improve their communication skills and inadvertently, their confidence. If this interests you, you can find their website here.
Practice leaving your comfort zone – The more often you do it, the easier it gets. Start by taking small steps, like speaking up in team meetings and begin to have your view heard, even when you don’t feel like it. The more you start using your voice the more your confidence will grow. This will help you self-promote and talk about your achievements when you need to. Play an active role in brainstorming ideas, push yourself to get involved in a new project. By pushing yourself and believing you can do it, your confidence will ultimately grow and people will realise you have opinions that need to be listened to. Once you have found your voice it won’t be as difficult to self-advocate, to show off your achievements and break through the glass ceiling.
So, the next time you are listening to that voice inside your head telling you to keep quiet in that meeting, that you don’t deserve that pay rise, that you are not good enough for that job promotion. Remind yourself to change your mindset, and remember, it is not talent, but effort that helps people achieve. It is the fact that failure does not define them. Failure is just one step on the learning curve, and as long as you keep learning then you are growing, and on the right path to achieving your goals.