Why are so many talented, smart women diffident at work?
I often attend gender conferences where women outnumber men roughly 20 to one. Yet, even amongst us, there will always be the one who begins apologetically, “I didn’t come prepared,” and then go on to astound the room with her brilliance.
Women struggle to talk about themselves positively, says Aparna Jain, author, leadership and diversity coach. At the workshops she organises, “There’s so much self-doubt.”
We talk of the gender pay gap readily enough. Perhaps we need to talk a bit more of the gender confidence gap.
Research bears testimony to it. Men over-estimate their abilities and performance while women downplay both (Cornell University). Men are four times more likely to ask for a raise than women (Linda Babcock, Women Don’t Ask). Men apply for positions even if they meet only 60% of the requirements; woman will apply only if they qualify 100% (Hewlett Packard).
Boys and girls are born equal. But we tell our boys what they can and should do: have careers, look after families. Girls are brought up with a long list of things they cannot do, wear or say. Don’t stay out late. Don’t talk back, especially to figures of male authority. We whittle away at their confidence. “Each time I interviewed a smart, competent woman, I would be startled to learn… how little she trusted her voice,” writes former World Bank advisor, Deepa Narayan, in her book, Chup.
This indoctrination is carried forward at the workplace where male bosses might reflexively turn to the women at the conference table to order coffee — or talk over them.
When women project self-confidence, they come across as lacking in warmth, a quality that men are very rarely judged by, finds Laura Guillen in Harvard Business Review. Our behaviour is held up to greater scrutiny and double standards. A man’s emotional outburst is “volatile”, and a woman’s is “hysterical”. Aparna Jain calls it a “classic double bind”.
Sometimes the messaging can also be insidious as role models like Sheryl Sandberg urge women to “lean in”, implying that both the problem and the solution lie with us.
And, yet, workplaces are changing. They are changing because a more assertive generation of women is far more likely to be vocal and aware of her rights. India’s #MeToo certainly saw younger women calling out predatory men — and older women taking their lead from them.
India’s 80 million teenage girls are our most aspirational ever. They dream of studying further and having careers, finds a recent study by Naandi Foundation. Three in four teenage girls surveyed across 70,000 households, rural as well as urban, in 30 Indian states, said they wanted to marry after the age of 21 by which time they would already be earning a living.
These girls are our future citizens. Amongst them are leaders, heads of corporations, members of Parliament, innovators, change makers. All we need to do is leave them alone and let them find their voice.
Namita Bhandare writes on social issues
The views expressed are personal