Women−It’s not a confidence problem.  It’s not just about promoting yourself.

We know there is a wide and stubborn gender gap, both in terms of pay and leadership opportunities.

It is fair to say studies have shown that a combination of factors contributes to this long-standing problem. And, most definitely sexist cultural norms, not women’s actual lack of confidence, play the biggest part.

Recently, I mentioned that, in the highly competitive arena of venture capital, women do not get funded a fraction as much as men do.  To blame—the fact that women don’t promote themselves, and they don’t overinflate their abilities.  In other words, the “confidence gap”, this idea that women feel less confident in their own abilities and/or do not convey confidence in their abilities in the same ways that men do, is to blame.

Sheryl Sandberg, in her book, Lean In shares this sentiment:

“There are days I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.”

I suppose the lesson is that a man of Sheryl’s status and accomplishments wouldn’t feel this way. Who knows?

But, the truth is that simply telling women to promote themselves like men do and to stop doubting themselves isn’t all that helpful in many contexts. For instance, a study confirms what many women already know: in order to succeed, they have to balance their confidence and assertiveness with more stereotypically female traits, such as modesty and caring for others. 

But, too much modesty and the appearance of overtly caring for others will detract from their colleagues’ ability to see value in their achievements and abilities, period. Further, delivering too much self-promotion and aggressiveness, women will suffer repercussions for failing to conform to those icky, but entrenched, gender norms.

It is fear of those repercussions that hold women back from self-promoting, not a lack of confidence.

The takeaway is that telling women to “be more confident” is a far cry from truly fixing the issue and it often backfires.

Workplaces need to educate employees on the backlash many women feel when they self-promote so that people can be made aware of their deeply rooted biases. Until that happens, women will likely continue to struggle.

In the meantime, women should still:

  1. Track and verbalize your contributions at work.
  2. Help other women do the same and promote other women!
  3. Do not wait to challenge yourself until you feel ready; jump in now!
  4. Know your strengths and use them.
  5. Develop a 5-year plan, envision it, visualize it and get determined to make it happen.