As International Women’s Day draws to a close, I feel privileged to have taken part in a podcast for Kerning the Gap, the network for equality in the design industry. Natalie Maher (founder of Kerning the Gap) and I got together over a glass of wine to discuss some of the challenges women face getting their voices heard in our agency world, and looked at practical tips to boost confidence and gravitas. The podcast can be downloaded here and you can find out more about Kerning the Gap here.
Below is a blog piece covering much of what we discussed:
With a recent US study reporting that six-year-old girls are less likely than boys to believe that members of their gender are brilliant and more likely to shy away from activities said to be for children who are “really, really smart”, it’s little wonder that the same question crops up in nearly every training session I run with agencies: “How can I, as a woman, get my voice heard in a room full of men?” Unconsciously or consciously, we’ve been conditioned from an early age to believe that men are brighter and more brilliant than we are, which could explain why we sometimes struggle to put ourselves or our opinions forward.
Another study analysed data from over 985,000 men and women across 48 countries, asking them to rate the phrase: “I see myself as someone who has high self-esteem.” The study found that across the board, regardless of culture or country, men have higher self-esteem than women.
Having lower self-esteem or self-confidence, means women are far more likely to doubt their ability to succeed at a given task, to be more risk averse and less willing to pursue new challenges. As a result, women tend to be more cautious in their careers compared to men, whether in the jobs they are in or in considering new roles within or outside their current employer. It comes as no surprise that over time women end up missing out on opportunities.
With so many research studies proving that women have lower self-esteem than men, it would seem that addressing this ‘gender confidence gap’ is key to achieving gender balance within agencies and other workplaces. While having more confident women won’t eliminate the unconscious bias or stop more self-assured outspoken women being called bossy or bitchy (where men are simply labelled assertive), it will empower more women to call out bias when they see it, put themselves forward and take more risks. This will see more women moving up the ladder which, in turn, will provide more much needed role models, mentors, sponsors and inspiration for women following below.
We can all play a role in helping embolden women to back themselves more and doubt themselves less; to take more risks, to throw themselves into doing the very things they’re afraid of. Only by doing that will women come to realise how little reason they had to fear. Often the only way to build confidence and courage is by acting with it. As Sheryl Sandberg said:
“Fortune does favour the bold and you’ll never know what you’re capable of if you don’t try.”
But how can we, as women, take that first bold step, build our inner strength and stability, and gain the courage to take more risks and increase our self-confidence?
In her book, Gravitas, Caroline Goyder suggests that you first recognise the inner helmsmen in your head – two key members being your inner coach and your inner critic.
Your inner coach does calm and celebration and is a positive voice that lets you know when you’ve done something well, supports you and gives you praise. You can learn to turn up the calming voice of the coach whenever you hit anxiety. By doing so, you’ll start to notice how it calms you down.
Your inner critic does refinement and helps you honestly step up and improve (rather than doing a full on character assassination). Your inner critic is an essential tool for inner confidence and gravitas because it allows you to transform, improve, refine. Think of a moment where you’ve felt stressed or under pressure recently. The negative voice you hear in these moments is your critic. Notice how when you turn up the inner critic it raises your anxiety levels and stresses you out but if you turn the volume down you relax. In effect you are in control of how you respond to any situation and if you turn the volume down on the inner critic you can minimise the anxiety that blocks your confidence and gravitas.
Caroline suggests that you use the critic to make you better not worse. If all the critic is doing is making you feel bad you need to take it in hand and get it to refine: “Yes, you could have done that better”, rather than attack: “You were a disaster”. It’s crucial to know the difference and train your critic to help you.
For many of us, the inner critic is often shouting far too loudly in our heads. We immediately underestimate our value and our worth. We need to encourage our inner coach to work harder. We need to know when to refine and when to celebrate. Caroline assures us that if we can find the balance, it will give us honesty, humility and instinct…all leading us to have greater gravitas and authority as females in the workplace.
As well as building our inner confidence there are many outward, physical things we can do to help us feel more confident and project greater authority and credibility in the workplace. We’ve referenced these many times before, but here’s a reminder:
1. Hone your non-verbal communication:
– do the power pose before walking in to a room – stand tall and take up space – it will immediately make you feel more in control, more powerful (even if the science behind the power pose has been recently discredited…)
– walk tall, shake hands firmly and establish good eye contact
– minimise nodding – replace nods with stillness – keep your head still and relaxed
– smile, but not too much – smiling helps with approachability and likeability, but for more status, only smile if it happens naturally. Avoid doing too much raised ‘like me’ eyebrows. Relax your eyebrows.
2. Fine-tune your verbal communication:
– introduce yourself / ask how client is with a strong, firm, low voice
– be comfortable with a pause – avoid unnecessary nervous laughter or ‘fillers’. Don’t fill the pause, just chill, and if in doubt relax your face and remember to breathe
– at the end of a sentence, drop the pitch of your voice (vs going up at the end of a sentence so it sounds like a question). Think of a newsreader – “Here is the [drop the note] news”
– make your messages simple, clear and easy to remember – use short sentences and simple language
– if looking to influence / persuade, mention weaknesses in your argument or position and do this just before your strongest point
3. Consider your attitude:
– focus on task, not relationship in order to boost your status
– get straight to the point, straight to the task – avoid trying too hard to be someone’s friend
– ask questions about the people you are with – it’s important to ask questions that are interesting to THEM and ask them to talk about things from their point of view
– be an expert – truly know your subject
4. Focus your attention:
– take the focus away from yourself and truly focus your attention on the person you’re meeting. Give them your full attention, however harried or distracted you may feel
– don’t mistake ‘being interesting’ for ‘talking about myself’
– change your focus from yourself to the other person – truly LISTEN – the more you listen, the more information you get
5. Scrutinize how you look:
– this isn’t about a need to conform but simply about wearing what makes you feelpowerful and confident – wear what works for you
It’s important to note that these tips are intended to help women project greater confidence and authority which will in turn enable them to feel more confident on the inside. It shouldn’t ever be about suggesting women try to be someone they’re not or encouraging them to “act like a man”. This would suggest that women are lacking in something, whether it’s skill, will or background, which is of course not the case.
After all, the issue of gender diversity is not just a women’s issue. It needs to be an inclusive conversation. Agency leaders, and indeed all business leaders, have a responsibility to better support women in the workplace. Successful gender balance starts, or fails, at the top.
Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of 20-First (which advises businesses on achieving gender balance) suggests that while many businesses have worked hard to create women’s networks, mentoring programmes and female leadership training, this implies that today’s imbalance is caused by something women lack. CEOs need to move away from thinking about ‘fixing the women” and move instead towards “fixing the company”. Agency leaders should therefore be asking “What’s wrong with our agency if we can’t attract, retain and promote the majority of today’s educated talent?”. They should be aware of whether their agency is unconsciously leaning to a preference for male styles and adjust the tone from the top accordingly. Avivah suggests that businesses need to move away from being ‘gender-blind’ to being ‘gender-bilingual’; to use language that is inclusively neutral without falling into inauthentic political correctness. By doing this, they will be speaking to and engaging with their entire workforce, male or female, without the risk of alienating either group.
We all need to strive to make gender balance an inclusive conversation, to work hard at getting the whole agency to buy in to the benefits of gender balance and to make it a lever to achieve business goals. This, combined with the necessary support and training for women to build their self-confidence, portray greater gravitas and authority and to be less risk averse, will surely help us to achieve a more level playing field in the agency environment.