Four Ways Women Can Own Their Confidence as Leaders

by | Mar 5, 2024 | Sanger Programs, Women in Leadership

This past fall, the Sanger Leadership Center was honored to take part in Michigan Business Women’s (MBW) flagship event, the Women in Leadership Conference. The conference, held annually at Michigan Ross for MBA students, aims to uplift and amplify the unique strengths women bring to business. The 2023 conference theme was all about Barbie—as in “Business Barbie: You Can Be Anything.” My colleague, Erica Haughton, and I presented a workshop on confidence and executive presence called “Bold Barbie: Owning Your Confidence as a Leader.” Here are a few key takeaways from our presentation.

1. Bias against women in the workplace is still a reality: and once it is recognized and called out, change can happen.

We opened the session by discussing the barriers women face in our professional lives. We heard examples from our audience about being criticized for not speaking up enough, speaking up too much, and being assigned busy work. We also reviewed data about the lack of representation of women in corporate leadership positions. For example, only 28% of c-suite level positions are women in the top corporations in the United States, and of that, only 6% are women of color.

Many of the examples of barriers our MBA students were grappling with were in line with what researchers call second-generation gender bias: a powerful, but subtle set of assumptions or structures in workplaces that keep women at a disadvantage. The researchers suggest that everyone in the workplace is made aware of the bias. Once bias is identified, collectively, organizations can take steps to change, including creating employee resource groups for women, cultivating a mentoring culture, and encouraging women to focus on their leadership purpose vs. focusing on feedback that might be centered on their image or their mannerisms. 

2. (Some of) it is all in your head: a growth mindset and a willingness to experiment with new ways of acting and being will lay the foundation for success.

While organizations should work to counter bias, in the meantime, women who experience barriers can take some action. We teach Dweck’s growth mindset in most of our leadership workshops at Sanger because it teaches students that they can learn new leadership skills. This might not sound revolutionary, but it’s surprisingly common for students to come to us with deep-set beliefs that they “just aren’t good” at a certain skill: whether that be public speaking, being confident in front of a group, or sharing their ideas.

Embracing the growth mindset means a person believes they can change. This means shifting from “I’m just not a good speaker” to “with work, I can become a brilliant speaker.” It also means being okay with failing as part of the process—when somebody has a growth mindset, failure is positive, because it’s a teacher.

We suggest embracing a growth mindset to build confidence in the workplace. After that is established, the Sanger Leadership Journey, our framework for teaching yourself leadership skills, can be used.

The Journey uses experimentation as a basis for self-coaching. In our workshop, we asked the students to consider a barrier they wanted to overcome. Then, after presenting some practical tips, we asked the students to come up with one behavior change experiment to counter the barrier. For example, a student who was regularly interrupted could use the phrase “please let me finish” each time she was interrupted within the week, and then consider if it yielded positive results. 

You can review the worksheet we used during the workshop here.

3. When you’re the smartest person in the room, own itand don’t qualify it.

“How many of you feel like you have to change how you communicate to make those around you feel more comfortable?” Erica challenged the MBA women during our presentation as she started a section about bold communication. Almost all hands in the room rose—many have struggled to assert their brilliant ideas.

Qualifying language such as: “I think,” “just,” “maybe,” “I’m not an expert, but…” is often used by women to come across as less assertive, as well as hedging phrases such as “I could be wrong.” 

A quick experiment you can run is to start noticing how often you’re using these phrases, and then move into stopping yourself. Identify certain situations where they might happen more often (e.g., using “just” in emails to superiors) and then set up a routine where you self-edit. 

A few assertive phrases you can then start to sprinkle in might be, “I believe,” “I recommend,” “I have a different perspective,” or “I’d like to add…”

4. Counter interruptions with immediate response, and consider a one-to-one feedback conversation later if warranted.

Being interrupted was another common frustration our session discussed. A 2014 study found that men were 33% more likely to interrupt a woman compared to a man; the 2020 presidential debates put this into focus when Kamala Harris took on Mike Pence. Several phrases can be used to counter interruptions as they occur, including:

  • “One moment, please.”
  • “Just a second, I wasn’t finished.”
  • “I appreciate your input, but let me finish my thought first.”
  • “I’ll get your question/comment in just a moment.”
  • “I was just about to address that.”
  • “Hold on, let me finish my point, and then I’d love to hear your feedback.”
  • Or the simple, “I’m speaking,” employed by Vice President Harris.

Sometimes, these interruptions are persistent from meeting to meeting. In that case, we recommend a private conversation with the interrupter, addressing the behavior and how it has affected you.

Do any of the tips above resonate with you? To build them into your everyday behaviors, check out the Sanger Leadership Journey model and use our tracking spreadsheet.

Erica Haughton, Michelle Austin

Erica Haughton & Michelle Austin