The number of women in leadership roles is still low, but the solution to this problem isn’t as simple as “having more confidence.” Instead, we need to find the barriers to confidence that exist within, since negative beliefs, like scarcity mindset or imposter syndrome, can keep women playing small.
It doesn’t help that female leadership contradicts centuries of societal expectation that tells us men are the true leaders. As a result, it’s not uncommon to meet a successful woman who feels obliged to explain away her accomplishments, as if these have come as a surprise—or as if she has been fooling everyone, and soon they will discover how lacking her abilities really are.
“Imposter syndrome” has become the catchall term for female insecurity, and all the more so since professionally successful women are still a minority. That said, the syndrome isn’t always restricted by gender, says business coach Nadia Finer, who believes it’s a human reaction to societal pressure to prove your worth.
Nadia has been working with ambitious women since 2013. “I work with those who are driven and want to achieve success in business, but often they get stuck in a cycle of fear. It’s like a power struggle. They’re dreaming big but don’t know if they can really go after those dreams—so they indulge in negative self-talk instead, or they procrastinate, make excuses, and don’t take any action.”
One of the main negative behaviors she witnesses is comparing personal attributes and abilities to those of others. Again, this is a behavior deemed to be prevalent amongst women due to the heavy cultural value placed on female appearance. Yet this runs deeper than looks, says Nadia.
“We can look at others and think, “they know more than me” or “they’re better than me.” When we compare ourselves to others and find ourselves falling short, it’s easy to think, “I might as well not even try,” then turn away from opportunities.” This can be the result of scarcity mentality—or the belief that there aren’t the support systems in place for everyone (regardless of gender or race) to achieve success.
“If someone else is doing what you want to do, you may start comparing yourself and hiding away,” says Nadia, “I encourage clients to look at the way they do what they do. You could have the same skills as someone else, but you’ll never be the same people. So work out what makes you different, it could be your story, style, values, or beliefs.”
Yet if you’re just getting started with your own business, doing what it takes to blend in can feel safer than standing out from the crowd. “It’s hard to be authentic (or powerful) when there’s a weird disconnect between who you are and what you do—and, no, you won’t be for everyone, but that’s OK.”
It’s OK Not to Be Liked
Call it gender stereotyping or unconscious bias; either way, there’s an undeniable assumption that a woman must be “likable.” The hardest but most effective way to overcome this conditioning is to start liking yourself, as you are.
Begin by finding the cause of your self-doubt, since everyone has a sore spot. “I have a little voice, I sound really young,” says Nadia. “This impacted my self-belief, my experience at school, and my ambitions as an entrepreneur. I didn’t want to make phone calls or give presentations.”
Left unchecked this kind of self-doubt creates a fear of being judged or of not being enough, and could lead to self-isolation, says Nadia, “When you recognize what’s going on in your mind, you can reach out for support and encouragement to carry on when you might otherwise have given up.”
Women Support Women
Seek “squad power” from those who can motivate and challenge you. “It feels safer to soldier on alone and try to do things by yourself, but it’s hard to do the bigger, scarier things this way. You get knocked back more when you feel alone.”
“Surround yourself with like-minded and open-minded people who get you and understand what you’re trying to achieve. Spending time with people who listen to you, and believe in you, is powerful.”
Own Your Story
Nadia draws her power from boxing. “There’s no other business coach with a little voice who’s also a boxer! This is my story and it makes me unique. Embrace the thing that feels awkward and use it. Whatever feels comfortable allows you to coast, but things you find uncomfortable can push you forward.”
This calls to mind the truism, “your weakness is your strength,” but perhaps it’s more accurate to say your imagined weakness is really your strength. Own your story, says Nadia—and the more women who do this, the better able we all are to change the wider cultural narrative around female leadership.