She's Just Not Confident Enough
Updated: Jan 16
This post discusses two pieces of content. Both touch on advice for professional women: (1) This short video featuring advice to women from Mel Robbins, and (2) this HBR Women at Work podcast episode
Is confidence a reason to hold someone back from advancing or a stretch assignment? Do women (specifically) suffer from a debilitating lack of confidence that makes them unfit for certain roles?
A leader inside A Career That Soars [a career resource and network for women leaders] recently shared a video featuring Mel Robbins as a resource that came up in a discussion on how to become a successful Board member. View the YouTube video with Mel Robbins' advice here or click the image below. There was a major thing I disagreed with in this video and several things I thought were decent advice warranting discussion...
Women are passed over for promotion due to their managers perceiving they have a lack of confidence.
I no longer buy the very first piece she brings up - women are passed over due to lack of confidence - not as the root reason, anyway. I first heard the "We Deserve Better than Attagirl" episode of the HBR Women at Work podcast a couple of years ago, and I share it every chance I get because it changed the way I view work reviews entirely. The episode dives into the differences between feedback women versus men receive in business. Here's an excerpt:
" 'Yeah, so it’s, you know, I just, I don’t think that she is partner material because she just lacks confidence.' So hm, well, that’s a stereotype. Is that really true? If she’s behaving in a way that looks like she’s lacking confidence, why might that be? And what might I even be doing (as a manager) to contribute to that? And here is where we get to feedback. Maybe she lacks confidence because she’s not getting really good actionable developmental feedback. Am I giving her that? And you know, looking at what have been my most recent interactions with her? What kind of feedback have I — have I given her any feedback? Usually there’s these formal appraisal systems, let me go take a look at that. In fact, let me go take a look and see whether there are systematic differences in the language I’m using as I am offering up these sort of narrative evaluations of the men and women who are my direct reports. And let me look at the objective ratings." -- Dr. Robin Ely
I have no doubt the survey Robbins referenced (ironically also attributed to HBR) in the video did in fact show that managers *said* they were passing women over due to their lack of confidence. My suspicion, though, is that this isn't the root reason. Imagine a professional who is not only competent in every way at their current job, but is also performing duties of the next higher level; now imagine a manager looking at that individual and saying, "No, I won't promote them; they just don't seem confident enough to me..." Could this simply be an excuse (even unconscious) not to advance women?
We gain confidence in our professional lives by having the foundational experiences we need, by learning and making mistakes through our work, by being given stretch assignments - whether we succeed or fail, we learn... And through all of that, getting actionable feedback and critique that we can use to better ourselves and our craft. It is painful to even type this out -- telling a professional they lack confidence does nothing to help correct whatever reasons that professional lacks confidence to begin with, especially in a technical/STEM work setting.
As they go on to discuss in the HBR WaW podcast episode, men in business are more likely to be given actionable, critical feedback that they can use towards their advancement, while women are more likely to be given nebulous feedback, such as "needs to be more confident".
Back to the video, though; let's breakdown Robbins' other advice to women:
1) "Stop taking meeting notes..."
OK, I can see this in the specific case that someone relegates themselves to "the notetaker" role. It's sort of like when women clean up after their colleagues from a lunch meeting. But I don't think a blanket rule of not taking notes is the answer to confidence or elevation.
The best project manager I've ever worked with - she took meeting notes. She strategically captured salient tasks, subtasks, who was responsible, timelines, deadlines etc. but also vetted really important EQ information around what was going on with the client. She captured all this and delivered it back to us, the team, in ways that helped us manage ourselves better. She did not diminish herself by taking notes, but rather elevated herself and everyone around her and we LOVED her for it. If I were going to make a school for project managers, I'd want her to run it. Actually, there are a lot of things I'd want this woman to run because her talents are applicable basically everywhere and she effing rocks.
Sure, if you're aiming to be or already are an executive, you shouldn't be acting as the "meeting notetaker".
2) "There's visible work and invisible work. You only get credit for visible work."
I agree with this. This has to do with how people perceive you internally. I once had a podcast guest who described her early career working in consulting. She was responsible for a running a computer program (can't remember exactly what it was, maybe some hydraulic modeling) through the night, which means she spent hours and hours at the office when no one else was there while she completed a lot of her work. She also came into the office during some regular business hours. What she found was that her colleagues gave her "credit" for the time they saw her in the office, and since that wasn't as long or as early as they were there, they *perceived her as working less. They perceived her as less dedicated, and this came out both in ad hoc conversations and reviews.
In my opinion, this advice really hits on recognizing how outsiders might perceive things and that, at times, you may have to do extra legwork to communicate or show the value you are creating. Or you might have to take extra measures to appear how the company expects you too. I'm not saying it's fair. But I am saying we all have to have situational awareness.
3) "Do not leave a meeting without speaking."
I agree this is a good practice in general, but I would reword this advice to something like -- Go to every meeting prepared so that you have something salient, relevant, or helpful that you can share or propose to the group.
4) Use the word "strategic" strategically :) and don't ramble in emails....
Perhaps this is the right advice for you. Maybe using the word "strategic" more often sends unconscious messages to your boss. No harm in trying it. But let's not conflate this tactic with something that actually helps us improve ourselves or our self confidence.
Regarding emails, yes. Part of using the language of power is being direct. If your email is full of apologies (sorry I'm just getting back to you) or diminishing language (I'm not sure if this is a good idea but...) then yes, not only is the email not concise, but it's also detracting and diminishing your ideas, impact, and messaging.
To sum up, I actually agree with much of what Robbins said, and I think there are layers of nuance and situations where blanket following these advice might not be beneficial to growing your career (or confidence).
Leaders - what does it look like for your team of managers to help build the confidence of staff members? Let's focus on how we can develop staff and removing the obstacles that get in their way.