Closing the confidence gap: How women can find their quiet confidence to be the leaders healthcare needs
A few years ago, Rachelle Babin was driving to her sister’s birthday party when she felt a sudden panic. Having just been laid off, what was she going to say when people asked that inevitable question of “What do you do?” “I was mortified,” Babin says. “I realized I had absolutely nothing to say to anyone.”
It was in this moment that Babin also realized she had a serious lack of confidence. Though she had progressed in her career and built an impressive set of skills, without a specific job title, she found herself floundering to define just who she was—or what she was worth.
She is not alone. According to Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, there is a dearth of confidence among even the most high-achieving women in the United States; women who have made it to the very top levels of government, business, academia and even professional sports. It comes out in that nagging feeling that they somehow don’t quite deserve the position they’re in, in their insistence that they’ve gotten to where they are by luck, in the way they see small failures as evidence of being inherently not good enough. It’s so pervasive, the authors refer to the “power centers of this nation” as “zones of female self-doubt.”
This is dangerous, say Kay and Shipman, because confidence matters. In fact, it matters just as much—and often more—than competence in our competitive world. And men, it seems, do not in general suffer the same self-doubt as their female counterparts. If anything, research shows men to be overly sure of themselves. So, despite the fact that women’s undeniable competence has led to significant progress toward gender parity, our collective lack of confidence continues to hold us back from truly moving the needle.
What’s eating away at women’s confidence?
In their extensive research for the book, Kay and Shipman identified causes for this female lack of confidence ranging from biology to upbringing to gender stereotypes, or what Babin calls the “constant push and pull of our own internal dialogue and external factors.”
It may be, in part, that our heightened brain activity (specifically in certain areas such as that which identifies threats), while helpful in boosting our ability to multitask and think through problems on multiple levels, can lead to anxiety, depression and a tendency to ruminate on every little thing we’ve done wrong.
Then, there’s the “good girl” syndrome. This speaks to the cycle that starts in grade school: Young girls tend to be more able to control their behavior than young boys. Parents and teachers then reward the girls for being quiet, helpful and obedient and inadvertently trigger what the authors call an “addiction” in women to gaining praise for being “good”—an addiction that discourages risk taking and standing up for oneself. There’s the fact that girls are less likely than boys to play competitive sports, especially in adolescence, which teach the skills of both striving for a win and letting a loss roll off their backs. And just in case we get past those, when women do try on a more aggressive, traditionally male confidence, it often doesn’t feel like a natural fit to us or to others—and we end up being viewed as cold, bossy or unlikeable.
What confidence looks like—and why it matters
Part of the solution to this problem is redefining what confidence looks like. And the answer, experts say, is not necessarily a picture of aggression and ambition—for men or women. Instead, it is authenticity.
Babin calls this “quiet confidence” and defines it as “the steadfast awareness and trust in your inherent values, abilities, strength and direction.” Rather than focusing on how you come across to others, it’s about knowing the direction you want to go—and staying that course.
This, many experts argue, is just the kind of confidence that’s needed in today’s leaders. Babin, now an executive coach to leaders in healthcare, adds that nowhere is that more true than in healthcare. “What we don’t want is for women to lose the emotion and connectivity they have in the pursuit of gaining confidence,” she stresses. “The ability to connect and collaborate is exactly what we need in this business where our purpose is to help people.”
How women (and men) can find their confidence
When Babin realized her lack of confidence, she set out to change the situation. That’s exactly what she should have done, according to the experts Kay and Shipman spoke to. The human brain has enormous plasticity and one’s confidence level, whether the result of nature or nurture, or both, can be changed. The trick is to take action.
“We need to hold a mirror up and really look at ourselves and strip away all the layers to see what we are doing to get in our own way,” says Babin. “Then, we can create a path to remove those obstacles and start moving towards where we want to go.” To get started, Babin offers her 10 steps to confidence—a road map she created based a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and positive psychology and has used to great success both with her clients and in her own journey
Rachelle Babin’s 10 steps to confidence
- Create awareness. For three days, keep a journal of everything negative you say to yourself. Then ask yourself, would you say these things to a friend? The results will likely surprise you.
- Identify alternatives. Think about what situations make you feel bad about yourself. Then ask: What happened? What was my response? What were my limiting beliefs? And what are some alternative ways I could have handled this? This process will start recreating the neural pathways needed to change your behavioral patterns.
- Identify your strengths. To do this, you can take a validated assessment such as the VIA Strengths Assessment (found at viacharacter.org). Seeing your strengths on paper can give you a rush of serotonin (the “feel good” chemical that helps boost confidence). It also gives you a place to build from—focusing on amplifying strengths rather than “fixing” weaknesses can be a more positive way to build confidence.
- Know your values. They are your compass. As women, we often think we must take every opportunity because we’re lucky to get it. But if you know your strengths and your values, you’ll know which opportunities are right for you.
- Do one hard thing each day. As Kay and Shipman note, taking action boosts confidence, which inspires more action and starts a positive cycle of growth.
- Be silent. Even if it’s just five minutes a day, give yourself the space to just rest and think. Experts also recommend a combination of restful sleep, exercise and meditation to keep your brain clear.
- Use situational confidence boosters. Even the most confident among us get nervous sometimes. Take a few deep breaths before going into a meeting to calm your heart rate. Or do a power pose (what Babin calls your “Wonder Woman stance”) to give your confidence a boost before a big presentation.
- If all else fails, phone a friend. Sometimes, we just can get out of negative thinking on our own. In those moments, call someone you know will give you the pep talk you need.
- Rake your plate. Speaking of friends, make sure you’ve got the right people in your corner. If you have people in your life who don’t support you, remove them to the extent you can and replace them with people who lift you up.
- Get comfortable being uncomfortable. If you’re in a situation where you can’t simply remove negative influences, confront them respectfully but directly.