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Tech’s Biggest Challenge: Tackling The Pervasive "Confidence Gap"

Refinery29 logoRefinery29 10/01/2019 Jennifer DaSilva
a close up of text on a white background: Refinery29 © illustrated by Norah Stone. Refinery29

As the tech community flocks to CES in Las Vegas this week to ogle over the latest gadgets, I’m concerned by the lack of attention paid to the confidence gap: The notion that women are held back in the workplace by a lack of confidence in their own abilities.

While it’s a cross-industry issue, it’s particularly alarming within tech. For an industry known for being forward-thinking, there’s a shocking shortsightedness around this issue. Much of it boils down to men having the hubris to oversell themselves and their abilities, while women are hesitant to take that risk, whether it’s applying to jobs, asking for promotions, or simply offering ideas in meetings.

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A new study from Refinery29 and Berlin Cameron, “This is Women’s Work: Stepping Up Startup Culture,” found that men are more likely to feel recognised for their work than women. It’s no wonder, because those same men surveyed also shared that they do not view women as leaders in the startup industry.

This dynamic is especially prevalent in startup culture, an area I’m familiar with both professionally and personally. It’s also something I, and many other women (even Michelle Obama) have faced. Along with the data in the new study, I talked to a handful of female leaders to learn more about where the gap starts, what it means, and how we can overcome it. Here’s what I found:

Portrait of confident female entrepreneur standing with hand on hip while holding digital tablet at creative office © Luis Alvarez Portrait of confident female entrepreneur standing with hand on hip while holding digital tablet at creative office The Gap Starts Early

Becca Brogadir, the principal at an Elm Street School in Walpole, MA, says she sees it in the elementary-aged children in her school. “Children who get called on are the ones who raise their hands, and girls generally don’t raise their hands unless they’re really sure they know the answer,” she explains.

Sarah O’Robb Hagan, founder of Extreme You, adds, “Girls drop out of sports at around 14 at twice the pace of men. Men inherently are getting those experiences and being rewarded for taking big risks, while girls are told to be good and well-behaved. These are deeply ingrained beliefs.”

Conformity Is Part Of The Problem

“Because we’re conforming and comparing ourselves to men, we see it as a weakness instead of looking at our inherent feminine values, which are our greatest values,” says Shelley Zalis, the founder of The Female Quotient. “If we saw a CEO description looking for a leader and a nurturer and a caregiver, who’s great at team building, we’d have a confidence value instead of the gap.”

Young businesswoman using digital tablet in financial district, against illuminated corporate skyscrapers at night © 2018 Yiu Yu Hoi Young businesswoman using digital tablet in financial district, against illuminated corporate skyscrapers at night There’s A Double Standard

Women feel an intense pressure to be liked on top of being successful — and it holds us back. Randi Zuckerberg, founder of Zuckerberg Media, says, “Men are called ambitious, a go-getter, or a leader, while women with the same traits are seen as aggressive, unseemly, or unlikeable. The need to be likeable keeps women from sticking their necks out.”

Woman and man talking in modern office. © Gary Burchell Woman and man talking in modern office. Startup Culture Reinforces The Gap

According to the research conducted by Refinery 29 x Berlin Cameron, men do not recognise women as leaders within the startup industry and tend to feel recognised for their work more than women do (77% for men versus 68% for women). This confidence gap can lead to anxiety and stress for women in tech: They’re 48% more likely to “stay up at night worrying about their success.”

So, the next question is, what do we do about it? How can we start to close the confidence gap, so that women feel more empowered?

Men and women talking in modern office © Gary Burchell Men and women talking in modern office Change The Conversation

Using different vocabulary can change perspectives.

Think about the words you use to describe yourself, and change that narrative. “When I started Zuckerberg Media, I changed the name of a team from Consumer Marketing to Creative Marketing, and people got 300 percent more creative. The words we use are powerful,” Zuckerberg says.

Woman using computer in modern office © Gary Burchell Woman using computer in modern office Find A Personal Advisory Board To Tap Into

Our research found that women are transforming startup culture by emphasising social good and diversity, and tapping into community resources. All the leaders I talked to stressed how important mentorship or a support system has been in boosting their confidence and their careers — especially in the startup world, where 40% of respondents said, “I would feel more confident if I had a female role model I work with.”

“If someone believes in you, you take on the bigger challenges,” O’Robb Hagan says. “When you succeed, your confidence soars.”

Arianna Lewko, one of the youngest female SVPs at TD Bank, says, “I use my advisory board to stop myself from ‘worrying it out’ and over thinking things.” Let yourself be vulnerable with your board, so they can help lift you up and push you forward.

Female and Male IT Engineers Discussing Technical Details in a Working Data Center/ Server Room with Internet Connection Visualization. Female and Male IT Engineers Discussing Technical Details in a Working Data Center/ Server Room with Internet Connection Visualization. Stop Comparing Yourself To Men

“Men don’t have the same challenges we have, and it makes us feel weak because we can’t do the things they do,” Zalis says. “There’s a quote that says, ‘Trying to be a man is a waste of a woman.’ We all have skill sets, and everyone doesn’t have everything, but everyone has something.”

Imagine Everyone As Equals

When she’s feeling less confident in a situation, Lewko tells herself, “‘Age doesn’t matter. This person is just a person like I am,” then searches for common ground so that a connection can be made.

Use Your Superpower to Overcome Your Weaknesses

In the past couple of years, I’ve pushed myself to form opinions and take risks, to be vulnerable with speaking my mind. I’ve also let myself be more vulnerable in the areas where I’m uncomfortable, and I have to say it’s helped.

For instance, I’ve never felt great about my negotiating skills: I dislike conflict, so instead of going in there with guns blazing and putting another party on the defensive, my openness has helped to continue the conversation. I’ve seen positive results because people like to feel empathetic, not adversarial.

I’ve found that taking stock in my victories over the past year, both big and small, has helped me to arm myself moving forward with my head held high and yes, a higher dose of confidence. Why not try it for yourself? That dosage could just make you unstoppable.

Gallery: Best of CES 2019: The smart home explosion [PocketLint]

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