Over the years, in countless interviews and annual performance appraisals, I've asked entry-level, professionals and managers what their aspirations are. 9 times out of 10 I have sat across the table from smart women who have lower ambitions than their male counterparts. This might be generational, and hopefully things are changing.
But when you are in a minority group - whether that be female leaders, black scientists, or white gay men who are FTSE 100 CEOs - you are typically going against the stereotypical representation of achievement in your field. You are probably also subconsciously fighting an internal battle as a result of an upbringing where parents, teachers and society at large unwittingly encouraged you to stay in your lane.
The years of media stereotypes and social constraints will have an effect on self-belief which is difficult to shake off, but not impossible.
In this article, I'd like to share what has helped me and others who I have coached, or whose transformation I have witnessed over the years of running a network for professional women.
There is a plethora of material - books, TED talks, podcasts - on how to develop self confidence. Sure enough, some will be better than others, but do your homework, speak to friends, see which might suit you and then read, watch, listen.
My first foray into this type of book was the classic Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers. I read this in my twenties and can genuinely say it had a huge impact on me. Amongst other things, it focuses on the negative voices that we all have - the collection of all of the naysayers over the years which you have now internalised. Silencing those voices is critical to moving on. For others Awaken The Giant Within, The Chimp Paradox, The Secret have been life changers.
Look for early cheerleaders
We often have selective memory about things that happened in our past. We may also have a disposition, learned or innate, which tends to focus on the negative. For me, growing up in 70's Handsworth was not always a bed of roses. Teachers and other adults in authority were often derogatory, demeaning and outright racist. However, I also had my early cheerleaders and these are the memories I try to keep at the forefront - the headmaster who singled me out to read to him in order to encourage me (I think!), and the primary teacher who gave me a direct challenge to achieve more than my race and gender dictated.
We all have positive and negative experiences growing up.
Cast your mind back - who was always telling you that you could achieve your dreams, and encouraging you to push further? Spend time reminiscing, and reconnect with them if possible. The more you focus on these positive influences, the greater your self-belief will become.
Stop putting yourself down
Us Brits don't tend to brag, humble brag aside, and it is a trait we often despise in other cultures. However, what this can lead to, with women in particular, is a tendency to over-compensate by not accepting compliments, particularly where we are operating outside of our lane, and by constantly apologising. Culturally, we also celebrate self-deprecating humour (SDH). Caustic self-deprecation might be fine for those who already have bags of self-confidence but for us who are flailing it's a big no no.
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of attending a Prince's Trust event at Buckingham Palace, and I was feeling pretty overwhelmed. This manifested in a major dose of SDH when I introduced myself to a fellow guest. He was extremely gracious and kindly told me not to put myself down - another cheerleader, who my 43 year old self appreciated immensely.
In future, every time you put yourself down, or apologise unnecessarily, stop and notice. Understand what the trigger was and replay, aloud or in your head, what a more appropriate response would have been. Hopefully, over time, you will still have your witty repartee, but not at the expense of your own self-belief.
When we lack self-confidence it affects everything we do, but typically it becomes our achilles heel in one particular area which stops us performing at our best and achieving our full potential. For me, and for many other women, my achilles heel is public speaking. In fact, not just just public speaking. After some very bruising Boardroom exchanges while on the career ladder, I started to become very anxious when presenting to very senior people in meetings.
All of the books and affirmations in the world were not going to solve this without taking action. The penny dropped for me one day when I saw a Director pacing in his office, rehearsing before a meeting. I realised that presenting doesn't come naturally for many people, even those who are not riddled with self-doubt. So I started to prepare much more than I used to. For important meetings, I would go in with a crystal clear view of the points from each page or slide, that I wanted to focus on and leave the audience with. And for larger public speaking events, I started to script, record and rehearse much more, including breathing and posture. This TEDx talk by Caroline Goyder has great practical advice for anyone looking to speak with more confidence.
Whether your challenge is public speaking, artistic performance or networking and introductions, you need to figure out the tools and techniques that have worked for others and try them out.
There is no silver bullet for self-belief, but if we don't at least try to rebuild it, it will be a huge inhibitor to us doing the things that make us truly happy. A small investment now, could mean unlocking the future we truly deserve.