The Challenge: Women Appear Less Confident Than Men at Work

This is not true of all women, certainly, but lack of confidence has been identified as a major factor in women’s lagging career progress and compensation. It happens for many reasons.

Women Actually FEEL Less Confident

Even when it’s not warranted, women tend to feel less confident at work. Citing several research studies in The Confidence Code, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman point out:

  • Men tend to overestimate their own performance. Women, on the other hand, tend to underestimate theirs.
  • When considering and applying for promotions, women tend to overprepare and hold back, while underqualified and underprepared men tend to be far less hesitant.
  • Men are much more likely than women to initiate salary negotiations and ask for more in those negotiations than women.1

Male vs. Female Modes: Dominance vs. Equality

Through extensive work on gender dynamics and communication, linguist Deborah Tannen finds a key difference between male and female styles learned outside the workplace.

Men tend to be more comfortable with hierarchy and aim for dominance. Doing so, men go for the “one up” position and avoid the “one down” position.

Women tend to focus more on relationships and are more likely to try to maintain the appearance of equality (especially with other women). As a consequence, women may inadvertently appear less confident and competent.2

Women’s Communication Rituals Downplay Confidence

To maintain this appearance of equality, women often engage in communication rituals that, at the same time, cause them to appear weaker and less decisive—for instance, apologizing, asking instead of stating, hedging, or making indirect requests instead of giving orders.

Double Standards Work Against Women

Men and women might get totally different reactions when using the same behaviors. Men are expected to speak up in meetings; women who do “talk too much.” Male managers are complimented for “taking charge”; female managers are criticized for being “bossy.” He’s “direct”; she’s “abrasive.” Men who talk about their families are “balanced”; women who do are “unprofessional.” It’s not fair, but it still happens. Ironically, women are often their own worst enemies when they are critical of other women or hold greater expectations of them than they do of male colleagues.

The Question: What Can Women Do to Create Stronger Presence?

Consider This

“Professional success demands political savvy, a certain amount of scheming 
and jockeying, a flair for self-promotion, and not letting a no stop you. 
Women often aren’t very comfortable with that.”

—Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, The Confidence Code

“It’s time to drop the double standard. 
Gender should neither magnify nor excuse rude and dismissive treatment. 
We should expect professional behavior, and even kindness, from everyone.”

—Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

“I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that’s how you grow. When there’s that moment of ‘Wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,’ and you push through those moments, that’s when you have a breakthrough.”

—Marissa Mayer

“You had the power all along, my dear.”

—Glinda the Good Witch

Try This: Seven Ways Women Can Come Across More Powerfully at Work


# 5: Limit Rituals That Undermine Your Power

In Talking 9 to 5, Deborah Tannen points out many conversational rituals and “softeners” women use to maintain equality with other women. While these may have a positive effect with some women, they tend to weaken overall effectiveness. Men tend to interpret these as admissions of weakness, fault, or incompetence.

Be aware of these “softeners.” Use them purposefully, if at all. For instance:

  • “Ritual Apologies”: Women often use “I’m sorry” as a conversation smoother when they actually have nothing to apologize for, expecting the other person to take half of the blame as part of the ritual. Neither understanding that nor being in that habit, men (and some other women) may take that as an admission of guilt, unnecessarily weakening the woman’s position. (A well-delivered authentic apology when warranted, however, is likely to increase effectiveness.)
  • “Ritual Thanks”: Women often use “thanks” as a conversation closer and a way to maintain the balance with other women. Do express gratitude when it’s deserved, but don’t invite others to take undeserved credit.
  • “Upspeak” and Tags: “Upspeak” is lifting your voice at the end of a sentence as you would when asking a question. Tags are little questions added at the end of sentences, such as “OK?”, “You know?”, or “Don’t you think?” Use these, when you are asking for input. Otherwise, drop them, as they make it sound like you are unsure or asking for approval.
  • Fillers, Hedges, and Qualifiers: Your message will be weakened if you use fillers (you know, like, um), hedges (maybe, try, sort of, perhaps, kind of) or qualifiers (This may be a stupid question, I’m not sure, but … ) to preface your statements. Unless a qualifier is important, plunge right into your statement.
  • Indirect Requests: Women often ask for what they need through suggestions or indirect requests (If you could possibly … ), while men are more likely to give direct orders (I need this by 5 p.m.). To get things done, make a diplomatic, direct statement.

See the complete article and more like it in Leaders Lab: 66 Ways to Develop Your Leadership Skill, Strategy, and Style.

©New Century Leadership LLC 2016.


  1. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 14–21.
  2. Deborah Tannen, Talking From 9 To 5: How Women’s and Men’s Conversational Styles Affect Who Gets Heard, Who Gets Credit, and What Gets Done at Work (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1994).