Building Shared Confidence to Tackle Gender Bias

Photo: Mary Stamm-Clarke

Building Shared Confidence to Tackle Gender Bias

There is a debate that rears it head again and again in article upon counter-article. Do we women need to have more confidence and put themselves forward for success or do we need cultural and institutionalized gender bias to be toppled in order to remove barriers to women’s advancement?

The reality is that we need both. But we also need to go one step further and look at the fact that women are often asked to be confident and stand on our own as individuals like female Davids taking on Goliath sized challenges of culture and institutional change. Meanwhile we are asked to do so in an environment that is in part devoid of nutrients due to criticism, lack of support and reinforcing of gender bias by women themselves along with that of men.

It would appear that women contribute to ongoing expectations of female behavior in the workplace far more than we would like to believe in spite of an increasing number of women’s leadership initiatives. We reinforce gender stereotypes or exact a cost for those who don’t adhere to them. This often comes down to a ‘double bind’ paradox that allows women to be either competent or liked, but not often both.

An extensive body of research illustrates the number of ways in which women’s confidence and competencies are undermined by other women. This makes it more difficult for women to collectively challenge institutionalized gender biases rather than having to go it alone. The research of Professor Isabell Welpe at Munich Technical University’s business school led her to believe that female stereotypes are more reinforced in the minds of women themselves, including accepting certain kinds of leadership styles from men but not from women.

For instance, women are punished for taking on agentic roles in which they put themselves forward as commanding and competent as demonstrated by Harvard research. Furthermore, there is a penalty for women being assertive and advocating for themselves rather than serving as advocates of others. This is reinforced by women and men alike, according to additional studies.

Our work relationships with one another also become that much more difficult to navigate in part because of unrealistic expectations that we should be accommodating and relational above all. Research published in the journal Academy of Management Perspective demonstrates that both women and men more harshly judge conflict between women in the work place than conflict between men. This may lead some successful women to dissociate themselves from and withdraw support from other women and what is stereotyped as ‘catty’ behavior. Itmay also be a contributing factor to what can become passive-aggressive ways in which women withhold support from one another and in doing so can sabotage one another’s careers.

At least one of these findings is likely to strike a chord with the experiences of many of us. In my own life strong, supportive and outspoken women have been the cornerstone of my upbringing and career along with some forward thinking men. At the same time, I have also faced significant challenges that stem from the criticism of other women or social and professional costs that have been exacted by female peers for being too assertive, asking to be treated with respect or have my competence fairly valued. All of these serve to keep women in line with social norms and ensure that we don’t pull too far ahead. They also strike at the heart of how comfortable different women feel with stepping out of traditionally ‘feminine’ roles and how confident they feel about themselves and their own accomplishments.

As the daughter of a psychologist and someone who has stood on both sides of insecurity let me say that it alienates us from our own strengths and that of others, leaving us anemic and isolated in the face of giant challenges. It can also make us fearful of change and anchor us to outdated but comfortable perceptions of ourselves, the women and men around us, and the institutions in which we work. This is not to mention that it deprives us of the tools, partnerships and determination needed to topple the foundations of discrimination.

To challenge the status quo takes confidence and courage. To navigate past the barriers that are regularly placed in our paths to reaching our own professional and career goals takes a huge amount of strength, skill and support. This may be even more challenging for some than others depending on race, class and sexual orientation.

Social work researcher Brene Brown emphasizes that much of leadership and success requires vulnerability- the courage to show up, to be seen, to take risks, make mistakes and support others in doing the same. And yet it makes it that much more difficult for women to be vulnerable and build the support needed for inspired, transformational leadership if we are under an unequal amount of scrutiny from other women and don’t know if those around them really have our backs.

The divisive nature of gender bias is made that much worse by the fact that it is far too easy for women to feel that there is a finite pie available and that a slice for another woman means less for them or that another woman getting a piece more quickly is a slight to their own success. We have all experienced these situations. It is not without reason that women have felt this way. It is often a long path to reaching the boardroom, securing the small pool of investment available for women’s businesses, getting research funding for female scientists’ work or becoming one of the disproportionately few female newspaper columnists.

And still, we need to make a fundamental choice to create collective confidence. As women we must go even further to encourage one another to find our own sense of self so that together we can challenge social norms and topple what can feel like giant, institutionalized gender biases. We need our institutions to be both receptive to our messages and proactive in making change. We need men at our sides as allies. But above all we need a league of female Davids working together to guide others in forging a new, more inclusive vision for how we do business.

Ama Marston is the founder of Marston Consulting which specializes in strategy and women’s transformative leadership. She has worked on five continents for women leaders like Mary Robinson the first woman President of Ireland as well as the UN, the private sector and a number of international NGOs. She writes for the Guardian and others on women’s leadership issues and holds workshops to develop transformative leadership in organizations.

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