The Confidence Gap – and how too address it

The book The Confidence Code, by two US journalists, highlights a phenomenon that many of us know from our own experience – in general, women tend to be less confident than men.  Although the book is written from the perspective of working women, it has useful insights and ideas for women returning to work after a break, when our confidence is often at a low point.

Research data

The authors have gathered together and reviewed the research into this topic. Highlights include:

  • A 2003 study by two university psychologists which showed that women consistently under-rated their performance in a variety of maths and science tests while men over-rated theirs.  In reality, the performance of both sexes was on a par
  • A 7 year experiment by a Manchester Business School professor on her students which found that men expected to earn much more than their female colleagues – and believed they deserved to earn more than the women believed
  • A Hewlett Packard study which found that women don’t go for promotion unless they feel they have close to 100% of the required qualifications while men go for it with only 60% of what’s required

There are many explanations for the disparity in confidence levels – the confidence ‘gap’.  As you would expect, they include genetic makeup (brain differences as well as hormones), upbringing (for example, what is termed ‘bossiness’ in a young girl will be described as ‘leadership’ in a young boy) and cultural factors in societies and organisations.

So women are, once again, at fault for their lack of progress?

Commentators including Amanda Duberman at the Huffington Post have objected that the idea of the confidence gap is – once again – putting the blame on women for their apparent lack of progress in the workplace.  The objectors suggest that inequality is caused by workplace sexism, not women themselves.  This is a similar argument to that levelled at Sheryl Sandberg and her Lean In project.  In my view, based squarely on my experience as a coach and former corporate professional, the reason women are held back in the workplace is a complex mixture of both workplace culture and certain female characteristics.  What The Confidence Code and Lean In offer to women is an opportunity to reflect on our own contribution, to identify where and when we are being our own worst enemy and to identify actions we can take to close the confidence gap. Returning from a break, it gives a push to apply for the job we want even if we’re not 100% qualified and to negotiate for a higher salary rather than feeling grateful and accepting the first offer!

Practical ways to build your confidence

Fortunately, discoveries in neuroscience and psychology show that it is possible to amend our thought patterns to build confidence and self-belief: with time and practice we can tune down self-critical and doubting thoughts and reinforce more supportive ones. See our previous posts on:

The common thread through all these posts is an emphasis on action.  In the book, Richard Perry, a psychology professor at Ohio State University describes confidence as ‘the stuff that turns thoughts into action’. By taking action we give ourselves the opportunity to discover what we are capable of which builds our confidence and this in turn encourages further action. A virtuous circle is created and confidence accumulates as the brain replaces old thinking with new.

Posted by Katerina – co-founder of Women Returners

How organisations and individuals can ease the return-to-work ‘sticky door’

Last week Nemat Shafik, the new Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, proposed that instead of breaking the ‘glass ceiling’ to reach senior levels, women need to push through the ‘sticky door’:

women and girls should not look up to a glass ceiling but switch their gaze straight ahead to a “sticky door” which is blocking women from breaking through. It helps if there are allies on the other side pulling the handle too, … But it is not everything – it’s mainly up to women to put their shoulders to the door and give it a hard shove.”
Interview of Nemat Shafik with Jane Merrick, The Independent, 19/3/14

This metaphor definitely feels more possible and a lot less painful than breaking a glass ceiling. I think it works just as well for professional women returning to work after a long career break as for women employees aiming for Board level …
How organisations can ease the door
We need ‘allies on the other side pulling the handle’. Our allies are organisations which recognise the value of this neglected pool of highly-qualified and experienced senior women and are prepared to facilitate their re-entry into the workforce in practical ways:
  • developing specific recruitment channels to get round the HR ‘CV gap’ screening block
  • offering returning professional internships (returnships) as a targeted route back.
  • providing coaching & mentoring for the transition period
  • keeping in touch with alumnae while they’ve left the workplace so they feel the door is still open!
How individuals can ease the door
And returning women need to give a ‘hard shove’. No-one says that getting back into a satisfying and fulfilling role after a long time out is easy. But it is possible if:
Our role 
At Women Returners, we recognise the return-to-work door is still very sticky and we’re aiming to add some oil to ease it up. We’re encouraging you to keep shoving and organisations to pull harder!
(OK, I’ve taken the metaphor as far as I can now …)
Posted by Julianne

Are you trying to be a work-home Superhero?

Do you feel you have to do everything for your family and find it impossible to let go of even the smallest detail?   Do you tidy your house before your cleaner comes or run to school with a child’s forgotten homework?  Do you volunteer for lots of local committees and take on more than your share of work?  If so, you are probably feeling taken for granted and resentful of others who aren’t doing their bit.  And at the same time, you can’t see how you could possibly return to work when nobody else can do what you do!

If this sounds familiar to you, you are probably trying to be a superhero.  It is also likely that you behaved like this at work, before your career break, so it is even harder to work out how you could combine work with all your more recent non-work responsibilities.

What is behind being a superhero?

This superhero behaviour is common enough for psychologists to have recognised and researched it.  It is often referred to as pleaser behaviour as it arises from a need to gain approval from others (work colleagues, family, children).  To gain approval, the pleaser will do whatever is asked of them, hates to say no and will always say that they are ‘coping’ no matter what is going on.  The downside of the behaviour is that the pleaser doesn’t balance what they are doing for others with their own needs and the lack of balance builds resentment.

How can you get back to work without being a superhero?

  1. As mentioned in previous posts on unhelpful thought patterns, becoming aware of your pattern is the first step, so try to catch yourself when you’re about to put your hand up for a project or about to save your children from learning by their own mistakes
  2. Work out which of the non-work tasks you do that others could do instead. And decide which tasks don’t really need doing and just won’t be done when you go back to work
  3. Accept practical or emotional support.  Asking for help is not a weakness, we all need it.
  4. Get some practice with saying ‘no’ and learn to handle any unpleasant feelings and fears this brings up in you.  You might discover it is easier than you expected!
  5. Take care of yourself: build some activities into your schedule that are things you enjoy doing.  Read our post about guilt if you find this idea difficult
  6. Remember that you will be a more effective worker and more fulfilled parent if you balance what you are doing for others with taking care of your own needs too
Posted by Katerina

How to Ditch the Guilt – Top Tips from Work+Family show

On Friday and Saturday last week, we ran workshops on the topic of Learn to Juggle and Ditch the Guilt for visitors to the Work+Family show.  We introduced our coaching process for tackling guilty feelings and shared our top tips.  For those who were not able to attend the event, the three step process consists of:
1. Acknowledging the guilt feelings
2. Investigating their source(s). When is the guilt happening? What are the triggers? Is there any real justification or are beating yourself up for no reason?
3. Define actions to address the guilt. Take small practical steps focused on your guilt triggers. And let go of the pervasive ‘working mum’ guilt!

Our top tips are:

•Use our process to Acknowledge-Investigate-Act on guilty feelings

•Remember that working parents don’t have to feel guilty

o Children thrive with happy

•Aim for good-enough not perfect

•Work out your priorities & delegate the rest where you can

•Look after yourself to better look after others

•Ignore other people’s judgments – they have different values

•Put practical & emotional support in place – we all need it!

Additionally, there have been some excellent articles written recently in The Washington Post and the Talented Ladies Club online magazine as well as our earlier post on guilt.

Posted by Katerina

Are you worrying too much about returning to work?

Some people thinking about returning to work find they are consumed by worries. These often start with ‘What if…?’

What if ….  I can’t do this work anymore?
What if …   no-one will employ me anymore?
What if ….  my children/partner/family miss me?
What if ….  I’m not able to take time off for emergencies?
What if …  I can’t find a flexible role in my field?
What if …  I fail?
What if …  I can’t get good childcare?

The volume and variety of doubts and fears can be enough to cause paralysis and prevent any further progress with activities that might eventually lead to a new role.  Everything feels too risky.
Getting beyond worry
If you are finding that your worries crowd in every time you think about how to return to work, what can you do?
  • Write down all your worries.  Getting them out of your head and seeing them written down can reduce their power over you.  Some of them might seem more manageable once you lay them out.
  • Talk your worries through with a trusted friend or your partner. Articulating your concerns, and investigating them with a compassionate and understanding companion, can help you to see them from a new perspective and loosen their hold on you.
  • Ask yourself ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ – you might find it is not so bad.
  • Think about how you could test out your worry with an experiment which feels less risky.  For example: take a refresher training course or find a small volunteer project to remind you of your professional skills; commit to an activity you enjoy which means you are unavailable to your family for a fixed, regular but small amount of time and see how they cope.
  • Remember that worries and doubts are normal in any change, so don’t wait for them to go away before taking action.
  • If your worries stem from needing to let go of certain domestic roles or jobs that you have always held, work out how you might be able to delegate or renegotiate and get some practice.
  • For more ideas and to address specific worries, take a look at our posts on being a martyr or perfectionist, feeling selfish, regaining confidence and being overly self-critical.
Posted by Katerina

Am I being a martyr?

When you think about going back to work, do you find yourself thinking:
‘how will my partner/children/parents manage without me?’
‘how will I get through all my work on reduced hours?’
‘how will I build relationships in my organisation if I can’t stay late?’
‘how will I keep my clients satisfied if I’m not in the office every day?’

These are all common concerns among women who have taken a break from work and find it hard to envisage working in the way that they used to before.  They also often have families which have become accustomed to them being completely available and dedicated to their needs  For everyone involved, your desire to return to work means a change to the status quo and, as you are instigating the change, it can leave you feeling ambivalent and guilty about your ‘selfishness’.

One underlying issue is actually that you have spent so many of the years you were on your break not thinking enough about you and have lost the habit of taking care of yourself.  If your child leaves their PE kit behind, do you run it to their school?  If your mum wants you to meet her for coffee, do you cancel your own plans? Are you responsible for running the whole household? Do you make your children’s packed lunches when they’re perfectly capable of doing so themselves? Do you take on a variety of voluntary jobs that you don’t really enjoy? You may answer yes to all or most of these questions.  But what about the question ‘how often do you spend your time doing something you’ve chosen for yourself?’  If your answer is ‘not very often’, my view would be not often enough!

I’m not suggesting, by any means, that you have to put yourself first in every single situation: it’s a question of achieving more of a balance.  You need to develop or regain the habit of balancing your needs with those of the people around you, putting down some boundaries and getting comfortable with saying ‘no’.

How might you start to do this?

  • Listen to your internal response when you are asked to do something. For example, if your child texts you asking for their PE kit, notice that your automatic reaction might be to drop everything to respond, but PAUSE before you actually respond.
  • In the pause, think through the options you have (delivering the PE kit, saying no and sticking to your plans, asking someone else to drop it off) and then make a conscious choice of the action you will take. Sometimes it is helpful to ask yourself is ‘what’s the worst that can happen…?’
And while you are learning to notice your responses …
  • Become used to being less available to those who make demands on you by using some of your time for activities that you would like to do (eg a new hobby, a skills-based voluntary role, planning your job search)
  • Make time to work out for yourself what you need to ask from others to make your return to work possible (eg help around the house, emergency childcare back-up, school run rota) and start to have these conversations
As you become more used to balancing your needs with the demands of those around you, you will start behaving less like a martyr.  And this will be really useful preparation for when you actually do return to work.
Posted by Katerina

Are you your own worst enemy?

‘I’ve failed in my career’, ‘I can’t be like other people in the corporate world’, ‘No-one will employ me’, ‘I’m no good at networking’, ‘I’m never going to solve this’ 

Do these statements sound familiar to you?  Are they a regular soundtrack that runs through your head?  If so, you are in good company.  Self-critical thoughts are familiar to everyone. They can have their uses: thinking critically about the world, yourself and others can be a driver of success and is a vital component of good judgement and decision-making.

However, if your critical thoughts are largely directed towards yourself and aren’t regulated or balanced by other more positive kinds of thoughts, the result can be low self-belief and loss of confidence. The constant repetition of such thoughts can lead to the belief that they are actually true facts.  ‘I’m my own worst enemy’ is how one of my clients described this pattern of thinking, with a mixture of pride and sheepishness.  While she was proud of her self-awareness she also recognised that she was simultaneously being unduly harsh on herself.  And she didn’t believe that it was possible to prevent the thoughts from happening, even though she could see the benefits of doing so.

Reducing the self-critical thoughts

The first thing to realise about this pattern of thinking is that it is a habit which has probably formed over many years and, as with other habits, changing it will take time, effort and practice.  The first step is to catch yourself when you are having these thoughts.  If you can do this, then you give yourself the option of challenging your thought pattern using the following ideas.  These have helped many of my clients to move towards being more of a friend to themselves than an enemy:

  • give the critical voice a name (perhaps it reminds you of someone you know?) and acknowledge that it is present, without giving it more attention
  • treat the soundtrack like a radio station and either turn down the volume or switch station
  • spend some time listing all the things you are capable of and have achieved.  Re-read this list (particularly when the critical voice appears) and keep adding to it
  • ask those around you, who love you, for some feedback.  Our partners, spouses and children are notoriously bad at giving us positive feedback and are great at complaining!  It is easy for them to assume that we know we are doing well, unless we expressly ask them
  • imagine that you are your own best friend and ask this friend what she admires about you
  • mindfulness and meditation are useful tools for learning how to let thoughts pass without becoming fixed on them or even believing they are true
If you have any other tips on how you have toned down your own critical voice, please share them with us.
Posted by Katerina – Co-founder Women Returners

Are you getting enough support with your return to work?

I recently delivered my eldest child to university and have
experienced my first taste of the empty nest.
During the long drive there and back, I was thinking over my child’s 18
years and the many transitions we have both gone through.  Two of those are relevant here: becoming a mother
for the first time and returning to work after an eight year break.  I noticed how differently I prepared for and
experienced these two events.

First-time mother
As I expect is true for many of you, the months before my
child was born were filled with hours of preparation and planning for both me
and sometimes my husband.  We read books
and magazines, joined ante-natal classes and the NCT, attended yoga sessions and engaged a team of
experts to support us: GP, midwife and even a water-birth guru!  And we were lucky enough to have grandparents
and friends to advise and guide us.  Is
any of this sounding familiar?
The result was we felt as informed and confident as we could be about the transition to this new
phase of our lives.
Return-to-work mother
The contrast with my return to work could hardly be
greater.  My husband was barely available
because of the demands of his career (and, to be fair, I probably didn’t ask
for enough).  There were few books,
classes, workshops or experts to consult.
The grandparents were gone and friends had either not stopped working or weren’t ready to think about returning.
It is not really surprising that I found my return to work so lonely and
at times felt it was all too difficult.
I wonder if this experience too strikes a chord as you think
about your own return.  I think that the
lessons are clear.  Returning to work
after a career break requires preparation, all-round support and
guidance in the same way as becoming a mother did. You need both practical and emotional support through the transition and any ambivalence you are feeling.  We are
making it really hard on ourselves if we think we can (or should) do it alone.
These days there are a few more sources for women returners
to turn to, (including this blog).  We’ve listed all that we’ve found on our website and would love to hear where else
you have found inspiration and support.
Posted by Katerina

Are ‘shoulds’ ruling your return-to-work decisions?

I co-ran a workshop for INSEAD alumni last week on getting past the internal barriers that can keep us stuck when we want to make a career change: our fears, beliefs and ‘shoulds’. We’ve talked previously in this blog about fear of being selfish, fear of failure, and guilt. And we’ve touched on the limiting beliefs that can unconsciously hold us back, such as “there aren’t any good part time jobs out there” or “I’m too old to go into something different“. If you’re feeling stuck, there may be another mental trap you have set up for yourself without realising it – your ‘shoulds’. Do you recognise any of these …?

“I should look for a safe and secure job”
“I should stick with what I’m good at”
“I should stay at home while my children are young”
“I should always be available for my family”
“I shouldn’t waste my qualifications”
“I shouldn’t take a low-paying job” 

When we say ‘I should’ we don’t always mean “I want to” – we may just feel a pressure to behave in a certain way. It helps to understand the psychological basis for this. As we go through life, we develop certain values based on repeated messages we’ve received from other important people in our lives*. Often it’s from our parents, sometimes it’s our teachers, or it may be friends, or respected colleagues. If our father tells us enough times that we ‘shouldn’t waste our qualifications’, this can become an implicit rule that we live our lives by without questioning whether it is a choice that we ourselves want to make. These inner ‘rules’ can unconsciously keep you unhappily at home (or drive you reluctantly back to work) or stop you from changing to a more satisfying job when you do return to work.

Our values can be influenced by where we are living or the society we have grown up in. One of my clients, Isabelle, a French accountant, was full of guilt for taking a career break. Isabelle’s mother had been a ‘career woman’ who had told her that “women should earn their own money” and all her equally well-educated friends in Paris were working mothers and could not understand why she had not returned to work. She felt a push to return to a prestigious job even though she was concerned about not having enough time for her family: “I should be using my education” was how she put it. Another client from Germany faced a different set of cultural norms; Karin wanted to return to work but felt pressured into staying at home because it was the expectation in her town that mothers of primary-age children did not work. As she explained, “I feel it should be enough for me to be concentrating on raising my children”.

It’s worth listening to what you’re telling yourself or other people when you’re debating returning to work. We’re often not aware of the difference between our ‘shoulds’ and our ‘wants”. Next time you find yourself saying “I should” try changing it to ‘I want to’ or ‘I choose to” and see if it is still true. If you realise that this is not your choice, ask yourself if this is someone else’s value that you’re ready to let go of. Of course it’s not always that simple to get rid of a long-held belief, but maybe it will start to free you up to see a broader range of options.

* Carl Rogers, the founder of humanistic psychology, described back in the 1960s how we ‘introject’ other influential people’s values and suggested that we need to ‘shed the shoulds and oughts’ to develop our personal value system.

Posted by Julianne

Prone to Procrastination? Tips to help you move forward

If you’re experiencing ambivalence about returning to work,
one of the effects might be procrastination.
‘I don’t have to call my old
colleague today’
, ‘I’ll sort out my
CV after I’ve taken the dog for a walk’
are the kinds of thoughts we can have.  The problem with these thoughts is that
without some sort of focus or sense of purpose, we somehow never get around to
calling that old colleague or working on our CV.

Sense of purpose
So how do we gain a sense of purpose?  For most of us this comes from having some
clarity about what we want to do next and why.
In the absence of this clarity, none of the things we could possibly do
(make a call, write our CV, do research, work out how to tell our story) seem urgent
or even relevant.  If you are feeling
unclear about your next role and you are perhaps struggling with too few choices or too many, taking a look at our previous posts could help.  If you are not yet ready to return or embark
on a search for a role, you can start to gain a sense of purpose by thinking
about the question of what you might like to do next.

Feeling Overwhelmed
Sometimes we procrastinate when we feel overwhelmed by the
scale of the task ahead and this prevents us from taking a first step.  So, even when you’ve decided that you want to
go back to work and have some clarity about the kind of role you want, you can
still be daunted and make little progress. Professor Richard Wiseman‘s research into the psychology of change has found that simply knowing our end objective, and imagining how great life will be if we reach it, does not motivate us – we need to clearly plan the steps we will take to achieve the goal. So the solution lies in
subdividing your end goal into individual smaller stages.  Each time you are able to complete an action you
will be moving towards your overall goal and you will gradually build momentum and confidence.  Wiseman suggests that you can further increase your motivation by 1) telling other people about your goals 2) recording your progress (in a journal or on a chart) and 3) rewarding yourself for each sub-goal you achieve.

Finally, procrastination can result from the way we order
our priorities.  When there are a myriad
of tasks to do and demands on our time, we can find it easy to relegate the
tasks that will move us forward in our career thinking to the end of the
list.  It is almost as if we need
permission to put ourselves higher up the priority list, particularly if we
have spent recent years in a caring role.
Who is going to give us permission to focus on ourselves and not feel selfish?
If you’ve been able to answer that, what is the first thing
you will do with your new sense of purpose?
We would love to hear from you.
Posted by Katerina