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Getting To 'I Can' - Bridging The Confidence Gap For Women

03/08/2016 12:16 EST | Updated 03/09/2017 05:12 EST
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It seems every year as we approach International Women's Day, we read yet another in a series of opinion pieces on the importance of empowering women in the workplace. Countless stories have been written, ink spilled, and commitments for action made over the years telling us why it's important that we continue to find ways to advance women in leadership roles in government and business.

There have been conversations, debates, discussions -- so many to the point that many people may think it's really just a matter of time until true equality for women and men is achieved.

Saying it's a matter of time is too often an excuse for maintaining the status quo. We need to keep our eye firmly on the ball and put in place deliberate steps to change how things are, into how you want them to be.

In my career, and in the careers of my colleagues and friends, one thing that helped the most is mentorship. For me, it started at home before I even entered the working world. I had the benefit of having a father who was my first mentor. He was a successful businessman and business was always discussed at home over the dinner table.

My father instilled in me that I could do whatever I wanted to do in my career and in life -- and treated me the same as my three brothers. My early morning discussions with my father were a part of my daily routine and one I came to rely on and look forward to for the support and confidence they gave me.

Of the many roles I've had in my career, sometimes I was put in a role that I never would have seen myself in or thought that I could do. I succeeded. In my personal experience, it doesn't take women (or anyone for that matter) long at all to come up even the steepest curves if we bolster confidence and support them.

And that brings us to the issue of the confidence gap. I've experienced it myself. Multiple times over my career when I was asked to take on a new role, I was excited and immediately said yes, but I also started thinking about what I didn't know about the role, instead of what I could bring to the role.

According to "The Confidence Code", by Shipman and Kay, that's the norm for women. What's even more disturbing is that many women say they wouldn't even apply for a job unless they felt comfortable with at least 90 per cent of the role before applying. Men? According to a Hewlett Packard discovery, they feel if they have 60 per cent of the qualifications they'll not only put their hand up -- they'll push hard to be the final candidate.

There are systemic and social barriers to women's progress still to be removed, but there are also things we can do that build our confidence.

The first is to take risks.

Women have to be willing to try, to move out of our comfort zones and accept that not every attempt will lead to immediate success.

The second is to boost each other's confidence.

Peer mentoring is invaluable in this respect. Providing meaningful feedback in a safe environment helps minimize our emotional reaction to criticism and feeds confidence. I have been fortunate to have an incredible group of peers, both men and women, who I can turn to and who know they can turn to me.

And the third is to be honest about our work/life balance needs.

No one can dictate what balance and success means for someone else. We need to arrive at that on our own, and be confident in setting parameters. Those lines often change as we progress through our careers. Years ago, when I was tapped to take on an executive role that required considerable travel, with two young daughters at home, I passed because the timing was not right for me. That decision was respected and my career didn't suffer. A different opportunity came up a couple of years later, one that I was in a much better position to take.

Mentoring can go a long way in helping to close the confidence gap and to shape careers. That knowledge has inspired me to mentor and sponsor many women as well as men, some over a very long time. And truthfully, I get as much out of it as they do, if not more. It has truly become the greatest satisfaction in my career and the thing I'm most proud of.

So on International Women's Day, I will be calling my network to thank them for the role they've played in helping me. If you aren't already, invest in yourself by becoming a mentor. It does take time and dedication but the rewards far exceed the effort. And if you're lucky enough to be in a position where you make decisions on hiring and promoting, make sure you have diverse candidates on the short list every time -- including women. If not, send it back. That will ensure conversations happen, even with unsuccessful candidates, and help build that confidence for the next time. That is how progress gets made.

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