By Inmaculada Reinoso

Businesswoman Making Presentation

I still remember my first speech in front of an audience in the winter of 2016. At the time, I was managing the relationships and internal communications of a regional sales team at a well-known American multinational tech company. The company was having a hard time hiring and retaining top talent, so I was asked by the director of operations to give a talk about the company’s culture on behalf of the Culture and Reputation Committee, which I led.

Even though it was one of the coldest days I remember in Ireland, my hands were sweating as never before, my entire body was shaking, my mouth was extremely dry, and my voice was squeaky. I could only see 100 blurry faces staring at me, making me feel as if I was doing something wrong. Fortunately, I had anticipated my nervousness and asked a trusted male colleague to join me as a co-presenter. Without knowing it, he was there to cover my own confidence gap.

The presentation ran smoothly, with the exception of a couple of unexpected technical events. We communicated the director’s vision on the topic, announced a few changes to that year’s business plan, and answered questions from the audience. In the blink of an eye, the speech was over and our colleagues came to congratulate us after. They were delighted by the changes we introduced, and they were very supportive of the plan. Also, we received positive feedback from the board of directors, who highlighted our joyful communication style and influencing skills.

Even though everything went well that day, I wasn’t entirely happy with my performance. I was still wondering how could I have done better. Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg inspired me to write about confidence after reading her world-renowned Lean In manifesto—a turning point in the feminist debate. To my surprise, women like Sandberg also feel afraid—afraid to be too outspoken; afraid of drawing negative attention; afraid of being judged; afraid of being perceived as aggressive, or worse, afraid of being perceived as weak; and, of course, afraid of failing. According to Sandberg, overcoming these internal barriers is critical if women are to gain power.

And Sandberg is not the only woman with confidence problems. There are other women, known worldwide for their work in fields such as tech, new media, and film, who have admitted openly their self-esteem problems.

It took Arianna Huffington, president and editor in chief of the Huffington Post, years to learn to stop her negative self-talk, which was the main obstacle to her success. Rachel Sklar, cofounder of and Change the Ratio, admitted recently in 8 Female Leaders On How To Overcome What’s Holding Women Back that fear, insecurity, and inertia are the things that have always held her back in life. Also, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and actress Emma Watson has shared with the world on many occasions her constant battle with low self-esteem. Huffington, Sklar, and Watson are only a few examples of the female confidence gap across industries.

It is not a secret that, despite the stereotype that boys are better in areas such as science or math, girls usually do better in the classroom in all subjects, at all academic levels, and all across the globe. Indeed, the latest findings from the American Psychological Association acknowledge that girls earn much higher grades than boys, including in science. However, the raise-your-hand-and-speak-when-called-on behaviors that Sandberg talks about in her book, which may be rewarded in school, is not often a key to success in the workplace.

Linda Babcock, author of Nice Girls Don’t Ask, found in three different studies that women don’t get what they want simply because they don’t ask for it. This is reflected, for example, in salary negotiation conversations, where men are more likely to negotiate for what they want. According to Babcock’s research, men initiate negotiations four times as often as women do. And when women negotiate, they ask for 30 percent less money than men do. We find a similar pattern when men and women ask for promotions. Women generally ask for a promotion only when they feel they meet all the requirements, when they consider their performance is perfect in the current role, or when they feel sure they can carry out the new role. However, men nearly always lean in, in identical circumstances.

There are many reasons for these differences in behavior, the confidence gap being the most worrying one. According to Katy Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, there is a big confidence gap separating men and women. In comparing themselves to men, women judge their own performance to be inferior, don’t consider themselves ready for the next promotion, and assume their abilities are never up to the job.

Wiebke Bleidorn, PhD, from the University of California, conducted an eight-year study in 48 countries to determine how men and women experienced self-esteem. It was the first study to look at the effects of gender and age on self-esteem. Unsurprisingly, the study concluded that, regardless of culture or country, men tended to have higher self-esteem than women:

Gender and age differences in self-esteem can be observed in different cultures across the world. Overall, men tend to have higher self-esteem than women do (…). Yet, cultures differ in the magnitude of gender and age effects, and these differences are systematically related to socioeconomic, sociodemographic, gender-equality and cultural value indicators. The considerable degree of cross-cultural similarity suggests that differences in self-esteem are partly driven by universal mechanisms. Yet, universal influences do not tell the whole story. The systematic cultural differences in the magnitude and shape of gender and age differences in self-esteem provide evidence for contextual influences on the self-esteem development in men and women.

So, the most recent evidence shows that women are less self-confident than men, which matters as much as competence for career success. According to Kay and Shipman, “Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels.”

Things get worse when we extrapolate to leadership communications. According to Margarita Mayo in To Seem Confident, Women Have to Be Seen as Warm, men are seen as confident if they are seen as competent, but women are seen as confident only if they are both competent and warm in their communication style: “Women must be seen as warm in order to capitalize on their competence and be seen as confident and influential at work; competent men are seen as confident and influential whether they are warm or not.”

But, why is self-esteem so important?

Business woman sitting at a desk

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in A Theory of Human Motivation, human needs are arranged in a hierarchy, and esteem needs, such as accomplishments, achievements, prestige, or respect from others, apart from motivating people’s behavior from a psychological point of view, are considered as important as physiological needs, safety needs, and feelings of belonging in order to achieve one’s full potential: “Satisfaction of the self-esteem need leads to feelings of self-confidence, worth, strength, capability and adequacy of being useful and necessary in the world. But thwarting of these needs produces feelings of inferiority, of weakness and of helplessness.”

Then, where do we stand?

If women are capable at school and qualified, skilled, and hardworking enough in the workplace, why is it so difficult for them to acknowledge their ability to take on leadership roles or communicate confidently in business environments? The truth is, even though we have made substantial progress over the last 100 years, there is still a lot of work to be done for women to succeed in the modern world. The good news is, according to the experts, it is possible to gain confidence over time. This means that, eventually, the gap can be closed. The decision to lean in is only and exclusively ours.

Creating awareness of the topic is our responsibility. The world won’t know about our insecurity if we don’t accept it as a natural human tendency of both men and women. It surprises me how little investigation there is on the topic. More research on the connection between confidence and leadership in both genders should be done in order to make family, friends, colleagues, and managers sensitive, engaged, and conscious of it.

This would make a huge improvement in the never-ending feminist debate.

In addition, women can and should work to raise their level of confidence. Cameron Anderson, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, has dedicated his whole career to investigating confidence. As he suggested recently in an interview, confidence is as important as competence: “When people are confident, when they think they are good at something, regardless of how good they actually are, they display a lot of confident nonverbal and verbal behavior (…). They do a lot of things that make them look very confident in the eyes of others (…) Whether they are good or not is kind of irrelevant.” Cameron’s words seem to suggest that overconfidence is the key to success in life.

Likewise, Dr. Carol S. Dweck, world’s leading researcher in the field of motivation, teaches us in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success that our mindset influences our self-esteem, our self-awareness, our creativity, and our capacity to face challenges. According to Dweck, a fixed mindset comes from the belief that our qualities are carved in stone. However, a growth mindset comes from the idea that our basic qualities are things that we can cultivate through effort. In a growth mindset, there is always space for development and change. People with a growth mindset are more likely to succeed in life—women, as well as men.

The most obvious and simplest way to work on self-confidence is practice. Lea Goldman, editor in chief of Lifetime Television, says that, when negotiating, women should always “bump up their asking price by 20%” to compensate the gender pay gap, a technique that will balance our recurring habit of undervaluing our work. Experienced professionals in the field also suggest women learn to focus exclusively on what they can really control. Mei Lee, CEO of DOTS GROUP and former vice president of Digital Marketing at Condé Nast, encourages women to follow the 10, 10, 10 rule; that is, ask themselves the following question when facing a challenge: “How does this affect me in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years?” Then, act accordingly. A great deal of research suggests that acting decisively, rather than living in a state of constant self-doubt, helps people become more confident.

Similarly, women should also emphasize their skills (as should men). For example, women are known to be good communicators, frequently having a much richer vocabulary than men. Also, they are known for their capacity to listen and admired for the empathy they show towards others. According to Louann Brizendine’s New York Times bestseller The Female Brain, we can measure a person’s ability to communicate by looking at the connections between the brain’s hemispheres. The number of connections seems generally to be higher in women. Good communication depends on relationship-building. If women make the most of their language skills and boost their self-confidence together with their capabilities, why shouldn’t they be able to succeed in leadership roles?

Women should also take advantage of what are generally considered female characteristics, such as vulnerability. Sandberg affirmed in a recent interview with Quartz magazine that vulnerability is needed in the leadership world because “it can build deeper relationships and loyalty, enabling people to actually bring their whole selves to work.” Vulnerability makes people feel more connected, and this helps them remain calm in changing environments or stressful situations. “I am much closer to the people around me than I was (…). I am way calmer (…). The small stuff—sure it bothers me—but not as much as it did. I have an ability to put things in more perspective,” she explains.

Women should lead their own confidence-mindset change at work. According to Kotter’s 8 Step Process for Leading Change, in order to succeed at leading change in any organization, it is essential to “help others see the need for a change through a bold, aspirational opportunity statement that communicates the importance of acting immediately.”

Also, according to Kotter, women should form a strategic vision to “clarify how the future will be different from the past” and how they can “make that future a reality through initiatives linked to the vision.”

Does closing the gap in belief between men and women across the world sound aspirational enough?

In conclusion, several researches across the world in recent years have demonstrated that the confidence gap is one of the most worrying gender discrepancies, and experts continue to emphasize the connection between confidence and competence, and success, for both men and women. Women can gain confidence over time by creating awareness among family, friends, colleagues, and managers; working to increase their level of confidence from a growth mindset perspective; acknowledging their ability to take on leadership roles, learning to communicate more confidently in business environments; and by leading their own confidence mindset change.

Only after women understand how capable they are of doing unimaginable things in both their professional and personal lives, will they be able to close the gap themselves. And we will all reach a level of understanding where the feminist debate does not exist anymore.


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